Christopher WEBER

Exhaust from a factory near a beach in China. If China doesn’t adopt advanced energy technologies and policies to cut energy-demand growth, the country’s energy consumption and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions could grow more than fourfold in the next twenty years. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

China currently emits more CO2 into the world’s atmosphere than any other country (but not more per capita). It faces international pressure to control these emissions because they are a primary cause of climate change, but China claims it should not be held responsible for CO2 “export emissions” that can be attributed to the production of items for export to the United States and other nations.

It is an accepted fact that China’s exports are responsible for large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions; in 2005, carbon dioxide emissions from China were estimated at 1700 Mt (million metric tons, compared to around 30,000 Mt emitted by humans due to fossil fuels each year), or 6 percent of global emissions from fossil fuels, which is unusually high, as US exports are about 500 Mt. Reacting to international demands to reduce greenhouse gases, China has claimed that limits on carbon dioxide emissions would hamper both economic development and its efforts to relieve poverty. It has also emphasized that per capita emissions ranked only seventy-third in 2004, but this ranking is higher than some developed countries, and it is growing rapidly. China also argues that its historical, cumulative contribution to carbon emissions is low, and while this is true on a per capita basis (China ranked ninety-second in cumulative emissions from 1900 to 2004), it is fourth in cumulative emissions since 1990. A final argument against mandated emissions limits is related to the role of exports (that is, products made in China for sale elsewhere): China claims that it should not be held responsible for emissions that can be attributed to the production of items for export to the United States and other nations.

Gauging the contribution of exports to China’s carbon dioxide emissions is not easy, but they have clearly risen dramatically over the past decade. A 1997 study by the ecologists Ahmad and Wyckoff found that 15 percent of China’s emissions were “embodied” in products to be exported to other countries (that is, they were the by product of the manufacturing of toys, electronics, shoes, and other exports, while only 3 percent of China’s domestic emissions were imported. By 2001, further studies found that the figures had increased to 24 percent and 7 percent respectively, showing that a larger volume of goods was being traded. But the export amount is still much higher than that of imports, as one would expect from the current balance of trade between China and, for example, the United States.

Export Growth

In 1987, 12 percent (230 Mt) of China’s domestic carbon dioxide emissions were created during the production of exports; by 2005, this figure steadily had risen to 33 percent (1700 Mt). These numbers closely mirror the rise of exports as a percentage of China’s gross domestic product (GDP), which suggests that export products are no more or no less carbon-intensive than products for domestic consumption.

Of China’s 1700 Mt of export emissions in 2005 (which was comparable to the 1850 Mt total emissions of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom), 22 percent came from exports of electronic goods, 13 percent from metal products, 11 percent from textiles, and 10 percent from chemical products. The recent surge in export emissions can be attributed to value-added products, which is evident when compared to previous years. In 1995, for example, the breakdown was very different: 19 percent textiles, 13 percent electronics, 12 percent machinery, 10 percent chemicals, and 7 percent metal products. Emissions embodied in primary product exports—such as minerals, raw timber, raw chemicals, and basic metals—decreased from 20 to 24 percent during the years from 1987 to 1992 to only 13 percent during the years from 2002 to 2005, showing how the Chinese economy has evolved into producing higher value-added items, such as electronics, which are more valuable as a product than their parts combined.

International attention to China’s role in causing—and mitigating—climate change shows how important trade is in the environmental profile of many countries. In general, small countries have larger shares of domestic emissions from the production of exports (for example, most European countries have a 20 to 50 percent share) while relatively self-sufficient countries have lower shares (such as the United States with 8 percent, Japan with 15 percent, India at 13 percent, and South Korea, 28 percent). China does not fit into this categorization because it is a large country with a large share of exports contributing greenhouse gases; its exports therefore play a more important role in its environmental profile.

Environmental Implications

Experts question whether the rapid growth of exports in China (or any other country) comes at the loss of production in developed countries, a phenomenon termed “carbon leakage” or the “pollution haven hypothesis.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international group that represents the consensus on climate change science, has not rated carbon leakage as very important, because its definition of leakage only considers marginal emission changes in nonindustrialized countries that have been caused by climate policy in industrialized countries. It remains unlikely, however, that this is the case in China, where the increase of emissions is most likely a byproduct of China’s other advantages for production—in particular, lower environmental standards and lower labor costs.

A large proportion of goods responsible for China’s export emissions go to the developed world: approximately 27 percent to the United States, 19 percent to the twenty-seven European Union countries, and 14 percent to the other remaining Annex B countries, mainly Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. (Annex B countries are those industrialized nations that have agreed to emissions caps according to the Kyoto Protocol, a binding intergovernmental agreement signed in 1992.) While approximately 40 percent of China’s export emissions go to other developing nations, flows to these countries may displace their own domestic production or production from another trading partner that might have produced goods with less energy intensity than China. (Energy intensity is defined as the energy required per unit of economic output, or energy demand per unit of GDP.) This may be significant because production is more polluting in China than in many other countries due to inefficient systems and a coal-dominated electricity supply. The apparent low cost of Chinese production comes with other consequences: damage to the Chinese environment and increased energy emissions that contribute to the international risk from global warming. Some energy experts point out that if the Chinese could decrease the cost of the production of environmentally friendly items such as energy-efficient lighting or wind turbines, the effect of emissions would be outweighed by the beneficial impacts of their use.

Potential Solutions

A possible approach to solving the problem of a huge amount of export emissions would be to use monetary or tax policies to discourage large-volume export commodities such as electronics, machinery, metal products, and textiles. But these higher value-added pro
ducts contribute to China’s economic growth more than primary products like natural resources, so in a time of economic challenge, this could lead to a loss in competitiveness and higher costs to consuming countries through inflation. Over the long term, it is in the interest of both the West and China to lower the energy and carbon intensity of its production practices, and to cooperate on low-carbon research and development.

While China benefits from export growth in terms of its GDP and balance of trade, consumers in developed countries also benefit. For this reason, there are efforts to hold consumers in developed countries at least partially accountable for emissions occurring because of the demand for low-priced goods. If consumers were to take some responsibility for China’s export emissions, it is conceivable that China would be more willing to play an active role in post-Kyoto climate commitments. And if China does not want to be held wholly responsible for its export emissions (as it claims), then it must at least be held responsible for what it imports. This could become important in the future, as China shifts to more of a consumption-driven economy.

Although one-third of China’s carbon dioxide emissions result from the production of exports, the remaining two-thirds need to be addressed as well. Inefficient, coal-dominated electricity production is the major cause of China’s carbon dioxide emissions, accounting for 44 percent in 2005. Urgent improvements are needed in this sector. Increasing efficiency in manufacturing as well as domestic and commercial building and in transportation is essential. Other solutions are expanding renewable energy generation and investing in new technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which seeks to develop ways to capture, purify, and store carbon dioxide instead of releasing it and contributing to climate change. Allowing parties to the Kyoto Protocol to shoulder some of the incremental cost of CCS as part of their commitment to decrease greenhouse gas emissions would be a first step, as this would allow importers of China’s carbon-intensive, emissions-producing goods to invest in lowering the carbon intensity of what they buy.

Further Reading

Ahmad, N., & Wyckoff, A. A. (2003). Carbon dioxide emissions embodied in international trade of goods. OECD Science, Technology and Industry Working Papers. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Retrieved February 13, 209, from

International Energy Agency. (2007). World Energy Outlook 2007. Paris: Author.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (1996). Revised 1996 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories (Vols 1–3). Author. Retrieved February 20, 2009, from,

Peters, G. P. & Hertwich, E. G. (2008). CO2 embodied in international trade with implications for global climate policy. Environmental Science and Technology, 42, 1401–1407.

Peters, G. P., Weber, C. L., Guan, D., & Hubacek, K. (2007). China’s growing CO2 emissions—a race between increasing consumption and efficiency gains. Environmental Science and Technology, 41, 5939–5944.

Streets, D., Yu, C., Bergin, M., Wang, X., & Carmichael, G. (2006). Modeling study of air pollution due to the manufacture of export goods in China’s Pearl River Delta. Environmental Science and Technology, 40, 2099–2107.

Weber, C., & Matthews, H. S. (2007). Embodied environmental emissions in US international trade 1997–2004. Environmental Science and Technology, 41, 4875–4881.

World Resources Institute. (2007). Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT) Version 5.0. Washington, DC: Author.

Source: Weber, Christopher. (2009). Climate Change—Export Emissions. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 424–427. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

China’s export driven economy is largely responsible for large amounts of green house gas emissions. Here men sort through Christmas decorations manufactured in China to be sold overseas. PHOTO BY ROBERT EATON.

Climate Change—Export Emissions (Qìhòu biànhuà—ch?k?u páifàng ????— ????)|Qìhòu biànhuà—ch?k?u páifàng ????— ???? (Climate Change—Export Emissions)

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