David Vance Wagner: China’s latest “airpocalypse” has again sent air pollution in Beijing soaring to hazardous levels for days straight. Though the Chinese government has made admirable progress recently at confronting the long-term air pollution crisis, it will be years before Beijing’s air reaches acceptable quality. In the meantime, official explanations for the severe smog—large amounts of emissions, poor air dispersion—seem comically inadequate, leaving a frustrated public hungry for more innovative explanations. The latest meme: could the United States be partially to blame for China’s pollution woes?

A couple of arguments support the idea that the U.S. bears some indirect responsibility for China’s air pollution. An excellent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in January found that a small but significant amount of air pollutant emissions in China can be attributed to the production of goods later exported to the U.S. A second, more tenuous argument for U.S. responsibility highlights environmentally unfriendly trends—Beijing’s rapid motorization comes to mind—caused by Chinese middle class consumers chasing the “American dream.”

However, arguments suggesting U.S. fault for air pollution in China worry me for a few reasons. First, the blame game is diplomatically dangerous, antithetical to the idea of the U.S. and China as constructive global partners. Second, regulatory actions implied by the U.S.’ acceptance of responsibility for Chinese air pollution are uncertain and legally questionable (will the U.S. impose an “embedded pollution tax” at the border? Try to set air quality regulations applicable to Chinese factories producing goods for the U.S.?). Third, I worry that such arguments distract attention from the fundamental, direct causes of China’s air pollution—an economy that grew too fast and too dirty for a capacity-constrained government to keep up with—and solutions—deep, enforceable emission cuts from industrial, power, and mobile sources.

Americans need not accept “responsibility” for China’s air pollution, but this is not an argument against U.S. environmental engagement with China. U.S. technical and regulatory assistance to China to solve the air pollution crisis is justifiable for multiple reasons that have little to do with who is to blame for what. Diplomatically, constructive U.S.-China environmental cooperation is a critical bilateral success story. Economically, stronger environmental regulations in China are a potential boon to U.S. companies. Even direct self-interest: Chinese transpacific air pollution negatively affects air quality in the western U.S. (an additional conclusion of the aforementioned PNAS paper).

The U.S.’ experience over the past decades—growing the GDP while dramatically reducing air pollutant emissions—is exactly what China needs right now, and I have been delighted to watch numerous U.S.-China cooperative air quality improvement projects unfold at the national and sub-national levels over the years. Let’s not jeopardize this constructive collaboration by pointing fingers and assigning blame.


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