Made in China—Cheap at the Store, Costly for the Earth

Because of antiquated manufacturing processes and reliance on coal energy, Chinese-made goods come with an increased emissions price tag.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 1, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

Flip over your coffee mug (make sure it’s empty first), and chances are it will say “Made in China.” That label most likely means it was cheaper for the store you bought it from to buy it from suppliers in China or have its manufacturing facility based in China.

But getting the cheapest possible product into your hands has come at a high price for the environment.

In a new study, researchers found that goods made in China have much higher carbon dioxide emissions than the same products manufactured in other countries. That’s because the factories making them rely on antiquated technologies and processes and source much of their energy from heavy carbon-emitting coal-fired power plants.

One of the worst-polluting culprits identified was petrochemical plants, which produce propylene—the main ingredient in most plastic products—to feed growing demand from first-world countries such as the U.S.

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“To make a pound of propylene in China is 21 times more carbon-intensive than to produce it in the EU,” said Steven Davis, an energy scientist at the University of California, Irvine.

He, along with collaborators at Harvard University and the University of Maryland, looked at data from China, reviewed the life-cycle assessment of various products, and researched how Chinese industries exchanged goods and services. They then calculated how much energy the different industries use and how much carbon dioxide is generated from that energy. Their findings were published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Davis has studied carbon emissions arising from international trade for several years, and in an earlier study, he found that developed countries were not only exporting low-wage jobs to China but also offshoring industrial pollution.

So, in essence, when consumers in advanced economies create a demand for cheap Chinese-made goods, it accelerates global climate change.

“About a quarter of China’s emissions are for goods not consumed in China,” Davis pointed out. “Chinese policy makers are now looking at an emissions cap-and-trade policy, and we’re hoping our research will help them identify the worst polluters and look at ways to reduce emissions at these places.”

Davis also pointed to companies such as California-based Apple, with its many devices either made or assembled in China, and how corporate America could work with suppliers to improve technologies and processes that are not up to date.

But he isn’t holding his breath.

“I’m not so optimistic as to think altruism will drive this change,” Davis said. “I think it has to be market driven, and since consumers will prefer affordable products, with a sound climate policy, they will hopefully be made with lower carbon emissions.”