A major consequence of globalization has been the outsourcing of labor and production from wealthy countries to the developing world. This relationship has fuelled China’s rapid economic growth as well as its often shocking levels of pollution.

The transfer of industrial production from Europe to Asian countries has also facilitated the meeting of greenhouse gas emission targets for member states of the European Union. This effective “exporting of emissions” has only political benefits and does nothing in terms of the climate.

A Chinese coal powered plant. Pic: Gustavo Madico (Flickr CC)

From an article in the Guardian last year:

While the UK’s own greenhouse-gas emissions have been tumbling, people and businesses have been buying an increasing proportion of manufactured products from overseas, where regulations on carbon emissions are often much weaker than within the EU. As a result, the increase in carbon emissions from goods produced overseas that are then used in Britain are now outstripping the gains made in cutting emissions here.

But this isn’t just happening on the global or transnational level. A recent report shows how the same thing is taking place within the borders of China, with wealthy coastal provinces “outsourcing” emissions by importing goods from poorer parts of central and western China. Since the more developed provinces have stricter carbon limits, this practice of outsourcing emissions undermines China’s climate goals, just as exporting emissions from Europe to the developing world subverts global targets.

Industry in less developed areas of China relies far more on old technology like highly polluting coal plants.

The study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) is quoted in the Guardian:

Without policy attention to this sort of interprovincial carbon leakage, the less developed provinces will struggle to meet their emissions intensity targets, whereas the more developed provinces might achieve their own targets by further outsourcing.

It’s a bit like how US states position factories upwind from other states, meaning another regional government has to deal with the pollution and all the expensive environmental and health costs that go with it.

A coal heating plant in Tainjin. Pic: Bill Benson (Flickr CC)

So, as the two great emitters China and the US do virtually nothing in terms CO2 emissions, unrestrained capitalism pushes the planet – especially the poor countries of the global South – towards disaster.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: don’t trust “green industry” to do the right thing. “Sustainable” is not in the vocabulary of big business except when they are using it to sell you something by making you feel better about buying it. No matter how good our intentions are when buying organic coffee beans, the economic structures that enable it spell social, environmental and economic disaster. 

More on that from the always-entertaining Slavoj Žižek here.