Is China aggravating the developing world’s environmental crisis?


The developing world is in the midst of an environmental crisis. The simple act of breathing the air is one of the leading causes of death.

A recent study found that pollution is responsible for one fifth of infant deaths in sub-Saharan Africa. Another showed that exposure to toxins or other dangerous substances in the air killed more than 9 million people in 2015 alone, with 92% of those deaths occurring in developing countries – c t is more people than those who have been killed by AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined in this same country. year. In Latin America, more than a third of deaths from lung cancer, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are estimated to be due to air pollution in 2012.

There are many reasons behind these troubling trends, but one is particularly important: China’s booming economy. Not only has this created an environmental crisis in China itself, but the nature of its trade with developing countries also threatens their air, water and soil.

Over the past decade, China has become the largest trading partner for mainland Africa and several Latin American countries, home to some of the world’s poorest people. At the same time, air pollution has increased in many of these countries, particularly in Africa.

Are these two trends related? My new study published in June tries to answer this question. I also wondered if a country’s governing institutions could make a difference?

The map shows the level of air pollution around the world based on the annual average emissions of microscopic airborne particles. Green signals low levels of pollution while dark red reflects very high levels.
World Health Organization

The environmental cost of trade

Most economists agree that trade helps generate economic growth and development.

Unfortunately, these benefits often come with costs, such as environmental degradation. Developing countries are particularly susceptible to this side effect because they often export pollution-intensive goods like fossil fuels and metals and have weak environmental regulations.

Western governments are increasingly pushing developing countries to protect their environment through trade agreements. NAFTA, for example, was the first US trade agreement to include legally binding environmental terms – which is now standard. A similar trend occurred in Europe, where binding environmental provisions became a must in trade agreements around 2006.

By contrast, China is not pushing its partners to strengthen environmental protections. For this reason, intensive trade with China is particularly likely to generate high levels of pollution in developing countries.

Links between Chinese trade and pollution

Against this background, I investigated whether trade with China affected sulfur dioxide emissions and environmental disease in 58 countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa from 2001 to 2010.

To capture the intensity of their trade with China, I measured the sample countries’ trade volume in US dollars as a share of their gross domestic product. I then conducted statistical tests to determine whether this measure of trade correlated with two relevant indicators of pollution: sulfur dioxide emissions and a measure of environmental public health developed by Yale researchers. I also controlled for a series of other variables to isolate the relationship between trade and pollution.

My findings show that many developing countries’ pollution levels have risen alongside trade with China – but not all.

Interestingly, the environmental impact of trade with China seems to depend on the characteristics of the countries’ governments. Countries with high quality governance, as measured by researchers at the Quality of Government Institute, did not experience increases in air pollution or environmental disease when they traded at high levels with China.

In countries with strong governance, such as Chile, Gambia and Tanzania, which scored near the top of my sample, trade with China had little impact on sulfur dioxide emissions and health. environmental public.

On the other hand, heavy trade with China has worsened air quality in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Paraguay, all of which rank among the worst in governance.

Much of the trade that developing countries tend to have with China is in fossil fuels, like the coal that powers this power plant in Xuzhou, China.
Reuters/Muyu Xu

Two ways to solve this problem

The good news is that my research shows that China’s impact can change. In two ways.

One is to find ways to improve governance in the developing world. The quality of governance encompasses bureaucracy, public order and transparency. Countries with stronger bureaucracies can manage a multi-pronged policy agenda that promotes trade while protecting the environment. Governments capable of ensuring law and order are capable of enforcing environmental rules and regulations. Transparent institutions reduce opportunities for corruption that undermines environmental protection efforts, such as bribery of public officials.

Collectively, these characteristics of good governance protect the environment of countries and offset the negative impacts that would otherwise be generated by intensive trade with China.

At the same time, China could change its ways and do more to push for tougher environmental laws abroad. Western countries already tend to do so due to the lobbying efforts of environmentalists and producers who compete with Mexican companies, who fear they will be disadvantaged if developing countries have weak environmental laws.

As wages continue to rise in China, the Chinese government will face similar pressure from domestic producers to do the same. It is perhaps telling that China has recently signaled its interest in global environmental leadership.

Until there is a change, however, China’s growth will continue to foul the air in many of the countries that trade the most with it, and their environmental crisis will deepen.


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