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The Trans-Pacific Pollution Problem

China has been an exportation hub for many years, supplying the rest of the globe with innumerable products on an ever-increasing scale. Unfortunately, it appears that an unwelcome additional extra has started to make its way around the world alongside these items: we’re now also importing its pollution.

24th January 2014    |     Peter Rolton: Chairman, Rolton Group

The nation has accelerated its manufacturing capabilities in the last decade to meet worldwide demand, so a commensurate amount of sulphate and PM2.5 should come as no surprise. What has been painfully slow to catch up, however, is any attempt to mitigate the creation and spread of these dangerous substances.

More than two years ago I wrote with some hope on the subject, as the Chinese government had for the first time admitted that the cloud engulfing some of its largest cities was not fog, but smog. It looked like the start of a positive transition towards addressing what was a serious problem, one that had forced residents into wearing protective respirator masks so as to defend their lungs against the air they breathed. So what happened?

Well, put simply, the situation has worsened. Reports now claim that pollution is seeping in substantial quantities across the Pacific Ocean and into the United States. This is of particular significance because America is one of China’s largest customers, and a great deal of the toxic atmosphere that now hangs over its citizens’ heads comes as a direct result of products made specifically for them.

Like many countries, the USA has outsourced manufacturing to Asia with a view to cutting costs, and it will have also helped them reduce their official carbon footprint. Siphoning emissions off to another country to deal with does not solve the problem, however, and there has to be a discussion about where responsibility truly lies here; if the full carbon chain of custody was taken into account, there would be nowhere to hide for businesses or countries that currently outsource their supply and, simultaneously, their problems.

Customers worldwide aren’t often presented with the reality of where their purchases come from, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if they did they wouldn’t be prepared to accept the harmful fumes that are part and parcel of the same process. What they don’t see when they’re handling their newest prized possession is the by-product that remains in its country of origin. Can it be right that citizens of production-oriented countries are made to suffer for the material gains of overseas consumers? China may possess the world’s fastest growing economy, but it is one built on a pile-em-high carbon intensive philosophy that is quickly becoming anachronous.

To the profligate USA, perhaps the Pacific Ocean made the consequences of reckless consumerism feel far away. With a fair wind, however, we’ve seen that this is no longer the case. What we have to face up to is the fact that the world is simply too small a place to think ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Whether we pump polluted air into the atmosphere without taking measures to reduce toxicity, or whether we continue to promote a way of living that continually demands more without giving anything back, we can only expect to see more of the same. Unless accountability is measured throughout the supply chain, the corporate social responsibility of some will begin to look like little more than smoke and mirrors.

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