We All Own Pollution, but Who Will Own the Solutions?

by Bill Chameides | September 10th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments

Log in to and you’re greeted with “Ahoy!” or “Mingalaba!” — “welcome” in a variety of languages. The Internet is just one sign of how the global village is shrinking. To combat large-scale environmental challenges like climate change, we need to tap all corners of our ever-smaller globe for lasting solutions.

My recent globetrotting has been part of this effort. I’ve been meeting with university and government officials overseas to establish a Duke international professional masters program in environmental management. This August, I signed a memorandum of understanding with the Higher Colleges of Technology (in the United Arab Emirates) and the Energy and Resources Institute (in New Delhi, India) to collaborate on instituting this program.

Among my recent destinations was China, not exactly your poster child for environmental stewardship. If you hadn’t known about China’s environmental problems before the Beijing Olympics, it was hard to miss the extensive media coverage highlighting just how deplorable the country’s air and water quality are. The culprit: rapid economic expansion without adequate environmental controls.

The Huge Cost of Pollution

The World Bank has reportedly estimated that 750,000 people die prematurely in China each year due to air and water pollution. I say “reportedly” because the estimate (intended for a report called “The Cost of Pollution in China” [pdf]) was, according to some media accounts, removed after the Chinese government challenged it. Whatever the exact number of pollution-related deaths, it is clearly quite large.

By comparison, a 2004 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association approximates the number of pollution-related deaths in the United States at about 55,000. Taking population into account, these estimates suggest that Chinese residents are three times more likely to die of pollution than U.S. residents.

The Global Village Shares the Blame and Burden of Pollution

As it turns out, the Chinese aren’t the only ones bearing the burden of their decidedly non-green economic growth. Observations now link air pollution in the western United States to factories and power plants in China.

China is in the process of passing the United States for the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest source of greenhouse gas pollution. (The United States will remain the greatest contributor by far to the atmosphere’s current load of greenhouse pollution, and its per capita emissions are much larger than those of China.)

Defective toys from China have also made headlines. In 2007 the United States recalled some 231 children’s products. Most of these came from China and most recalls were due to lead contamination –- often from lead paint. (See our recent post on this issue.)

All of this is unacceptable. However, before Americans cry foul, let’s look a little deeper at the issues.

Supply and Demand Link Manufacturers and Consumers in Global Market

Have you ever wondered what’s causing China’s pollution? A big part of it stems from our trade imbalance with China. Many products we Americans consume are made in China. By some estimates one-fourth of China’s greenhouse gas emissions arise from manufacturing products for export, and the United States is their top destination. So, who is ultimately responsible for China’s greenhouse gas pollution? The Chinese or us? Not so obvious is it?

And what about those contaminated toys from China? Absolutely unacceptable. But that story has another side as well. U.S. companies dump 100,000 tons, perhaps more, of electronic waste (e-waste) in China each year. This export continues despite Chinese bans on imports of e-waste. Disposing e-waste often puts high levels of toxic metals in the air, water, and soil. In the city of Guiyu in Guandong Province, where much of the e-waste is “recycled,” some 80 percent of the children have lead poisoning. Who is responsible? Certainly the irresponsible processors of the e-waste. But what about the U.S. companies that send the products there?

My point is not to paint either the United States or China as the bad guys. In a global economy, finger pointing is pointless. All of us –- no matter where we live –- have a hand in environmental problems. So forget the blame game –- our common goal must be finding solutions.

As a scientist and a dean, I can help bring together people from around the globe to learn about environmental problems and solutions. Graduates in turn can take their education back home, whether that’s the United States, China, India, or elsewhere, and spread that wealth.

The blogosphere has no geographical boundaries. Neither does pollution. In this age of information it’s time to get beyond “us and them” thinking, learn about what’s going on and what’s at stake, and get to work on green solutions together.

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  1. Daniel Wedgewood
    Sep 10, 2008

    Dr. Chameides – How should we work together to solve pollution problems? Shouldn’t governments be facilitating that? Since most of them don’t seem to be doing much to help combat pollution, should we turn to organizations like The Earth Charter? Maybe the Environmental Defense Fund? Does Duke University offer online courses that allow people to learn about environmental issues? And perhaps courses that teach people how to participate in ways that make a difference? – Dan” title=”How do we work together?

    • Erica Rowell
      Sep 11, 2008

      Dan, Duke does offer online courses as part of its Duke Environmental Leadership Program. Check out the online FAQ for details:” title=”Duke Environmental Leadership Program

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