News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Outsourcing Manufacturing to China Results in High CO2 emissions

September 29, 2015

Harvard's Belfer Center, UCI, and U. of Maryland Researchers Spotlight Coal and Old Factories

In a study published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, scientists from three universities demonstrate that buying a product made in China causes significantly higher carbon dioxide emissions than purchasing the same product made elsewhere. The study, titled "Targeted opportunities to address the climate–trade dilemma in China," is available here.

"The amazing increase in Chinese manufacturing over the past 15 years has driven the world economy to new heights and supplied consumers in developed countries with tremendous quantities of lower-cost goods," said co-author Steven J. Davis, UCI assistant professor of Earth system science. "But all of this has come at substantial cost to the environment."

The researchers from Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Maryland quantified the reasons Chinese exports result in such high CO2 emissions. They found that "emissions intensity," the quantity of CO2 emitted per dollar of goods produced, is by far the leading contributor to greater carbon pollution from Chinese manufacturing. China has a high emissions intensity score because of antiquated manufacturing processes and the fact that they get most of their energy from coal.

"The CO2 emissions related to China's exports are large not just because they export a lot of stuff or because they specialize in energy-demanding industries, but because their manufacturing technologies are less advanced and they rely primarily on coal for energy," said co-author Klaus Hubacek, University of Maryland professor of geographical sciences.

For this study, researchers paid particular attention to Chinese provinces with high emissions intensity. Steel mills, mineral processors and petrochemical plants in Guizhou, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Yunnan, and Shanxi are China's dirtiest industries. The researchers suggest that developed economies could do a lot to alleviate carbon pollution by helping improve manufacturing practices in these provinces.

"Given the differences we observe within industries and across provinces in China, many opportunities would involve creating incentives to promote the adoption of Chinese best practices," said Laura Diaz Anadon, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center.

"This analysis can help policymakers in China and internationally identify the industries and provinces in which efforts to identify and promote less energy-intensive manufacturing equipment and practices would have the largest leverage to reduce CO2 emissions," said lead author Zhu Liu, an associate at Harvard's Belfer Center and a Resnick Prize postdoctoral scholar at Caltech.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Outsourcing Manufacturing to China Results in High CO2 emissions.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, September 29, 2015.