The developing world is in the midst of a environmental crisis. The simple act of breathing air is one of the leading causes of death.

A recent study found that pollution is responsible for a fifth of infant deaths in sub-Saharan Africa. Another showed that exposure to toxins or other dangerous substances in the air killed over 9 million people in 2015 alone, with 92 percent of these deaths occurring in developing countries, that’s more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined in the same year. In Latin America, more than a third of deaths lung cancer, stroke, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease were estimated to be caused by air pollution in 2012.

There are many reasons for these disturbing trends, but one of them is particularly important: Booming economy. Not only did this create a environmental crisis in China itself, but the nature of its trade with developing countries also threatens their air, water and soil.

Over the past decade, China has become the biggest trading partner of mainland Africa and several Latin American countries, houses some of the the poorest people in the world. At the same time, air pollution jumped in many of these countries, especially in Africa.

Are these two trends related? My new study published in June attempts to answer this question. I also wondered if a country’s governing institutions can make a difference?

The map shows the level of air pollution in the world based on the annual average emissions of microscopic air particles. Green indicates low levels of pollution while dark red reflects very high levels.
World Health Organization

The environmental cost of trade

More economists agree that trade helps generate economic growth and development.

Unfortunately, these benefits often come with costs, such as environmental degradation. Developing countries are particularly susceptible to this side effect as they often export pollution-intensive products such as fossil fuels and metals and have weak environmental regulations.

Western governments are increasingly pushing developing countries to protect their environment through trade agreements. NAFTA, for example, was the first U.S. trade agreement to include legally binding environmental conditions – which is now a standard item. A similar trend has occurred in Europe, where binding environmental provisions have become provisions of trade agreements circa 2006.

In contrast, China does not urge its partners to strengthen environmental protection. For this reason, intensive trade with China is particularly likely to generate high levels of pollution in developing countries.

Links between Chinese trade and pollution

In this context, I investigated whether trade with China affected sulfur dioxide emissions and environmental diseases in 58 countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa from 2001 to 2010.

To capture how well they trade with China, I measured the trade volume of the sample countries in US dollars as a share of their gross domestic product. I then performed statistical tests to determine whether this measure of trade correlates with two relevant indicators of pollution: sulfur dioxide emissions and a measure of environmental public health developed by Yale researchers. I also controlled for a series of other variables to isolate the relationship between trade and pollution.

My findings show that pollution levels in many developing countries have increased along with trade with China, but not all.

It is interesting to note that the environmental impact of trade with China seems to depend on the characteristics of the governments of the countries. Countries with high quality governance, as measured by researchers from the Government Quality Institute, did not experience increased air pollution or environmental illness when trading at high levels with China.

In countries with strong governance, such as Chile, The Gambia and Tanzania, which ranked near the top of my sample, trade with China had little impact on sulfur dioxide emissions and health. environmental public.

On the other hand, intensive trade with China has deteriorated air quality in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Paraguay, which all ranked among the worst in terms of governance.

Much of the trade that developing countries tend to have with China is in fossil fuels, like the coal that powers this power plant in Xuzhou, China.
Reuters / Muyu Xu

Two ways to solve this problem

The good news is that my research shows that China’s impact can change. In two ways.

One is to find ways to improve governance in the developing world. The quality of governance encompasses bureaucracy, public order and transparency. Countries with stronger bureaucracies can manage a multi-pronged political agenda that promotes trade while protecting the environment. Governments capable of ensuring public order are able to enforce environmental rules and regulations. Transparent institutions reduce opportunities for corruption that undermine efforts to protect the environment, such as bribery of public officials.

Collectively, these characteristics of good governance protect countries’ environments and offset the negative impacts that would otherwise be generated by intensive trade with China.

At the same time, China could change its ways and do more to push for tougher environmental laws abroad. Western countries tend to do this already because of lobbying efforts by both environmentalists and producers competing with Mexican companies, who fear they will be at a disadvantage if developing countries have weak environmental laws.

As wages continue to rise in China, the Chinese government will face similar pressure from domestic producers to do the same. It is perhaps revealing that China has recently signaled his interest in global environmental leadership.

Until there is a change, however, China’s growth will continue to dirty the air in many of the countries that trade with it the most, and their environmental crisis will worsen.


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