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West cuts pollution - by exporting it to China

China's economy is growing faster than any other in the world - but so are its CO2 emissions. And new research has shown how the west may be largely to blame for the country's growing pollution.

An international research team found that while China's CO2 emissions have nearly doubled in five years, much of this pollution was caused by industry feeding the country's huge export drive.

Dr Klaus Hubacek of the University of Leeds said around a third of Chinese emissions of this key greenhouse gas came from the production of goods which were then exported - mainly to the developed world. So while working to reduce their own carbon emissions, western economies such as the UK are effectively "outsourcing" their pollution to China and other parts of the developing world.

And as China's people aspire to a more westernised lifestyle, its greenhouse gas emissions are set to rise yet further.

Dr Hubacek explained: "Our work looks at how changes in society - population, economy and lifestyle - all affect the environment. These findings show that that our high level of consumption directly contributes to climate change, especially if our consumer goods are produced in other countries such as China with very inefficient technologies - and their reliance on coal power."

But China's growing prosperity is driving its increase in emissions still harder. "One question we have looked at is what if people in China were to aspire to the lifestyles of the UK or the US, along with the equivalent levels of demand for goods such as mobile phones, computers, air conditioning and cars. We examine what effect this would have on emissions, and how these could be reduced if China were to manage these changes by adopting cleaner technologies or carbon capture."

The team's findings, published in Energy Policy and other leading journals, showed that while improvements in energy efficiency will partly offset projected increases in consumption, CO2 emissions will still continue to rise as China's consumption patterns converge to US levels.

"Relying on efficiency improvements alone will not even stabilise China's future pollution," said Dr Hubacek. "Even the most optimistic assumptions of widespread installation of carbon capture and storage will only slow the increases in CO2 emissions." In fact, the team forecasts a three-fold rise in China's emissions by 2030.

"This is not just a problem for China," said Dr Hubacek. "This is our responsibility. Many western countries are already behind their targets for greenhouse gas emissions - and what's worse, the dirty stuff is being produced somewhere else.

"Whoever is responsible for these emissions, China's rapidly expanding infrastructure and inefficient coal-powered electricity system need urgent attention."

Notes to editors:

Dr Klaus Hubacek is Reader in Sustainable Development in the Faculty of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds.

The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK with more than 30,000 students from 130 countries. With a total annual income of almost £450m, Leeds is one of the top ten research universities in the UK, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. It was placed 80th in the 2007 Times Higher Education's world universities league table. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015.

The Contribution of Chinese Exports to Climate Change by Christopher L. Weber (Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh), Glen P. Peters (Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo), Dabo Guan (Judge Business School, University of Cambridge) and Klaus Hubacek (School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds) is published in the journal Energy Policy. A copy of the article is available to journalists on request.

Energy Policy is established worldwide as the authoritative journal addressing those issues of energy supply, demand and utilization that confront decision makers, managers, consultants, politicians, planners and researchers.

For further information: 

Please contact the University of Leeds Press Office on +44 (0)113 343 4031 or email

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