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Chinese goods have higher carbon footprint than US ones, study finds

A ship sails up the Huangpu River as heavy smog engulfs the city on Dec. 25 in Shanghai, China. Both China and the U.S. recently announced targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions over the next 15 years.
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
A ship sails up the Huangpu River as heavy smog engulfs the city on Dec. 25 in Shanghai, China.

Goods made in China might be cheap for shoppers but they’re pricey for the environment, according to a new study from UC Irvine.

Researchers looked at the CO2 levels emitted by various industries and found Chinese products take significantly more carbon to make than similar items from the U.S.

"I had no idea the substantial penalty that we were paying in terms of the climate consequences of all this CO2 that's being emitted," said Steve Davis, a professor of Earth Systems Science at UCI and an author on the study.

This news comes just after China announced historic plans to limit greenhouses gasses and put a price on emissions. 

Davis said Chinese manufactures use lots of cheap coal to power factories, and often rely on inefficient and out of date practices that result in needless pollution.

"It turns out there is a lot of CO2 that is being emitted that doesn’t have to be emitted to produce those goods."

The team, which included researchers from Harvard University and the University of Maryland, focused on sectors known for high emissions, like the steel mills, petrochemical plants and mineral processors in Guizhou, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Yunnan and Shanxi.

They tracked the quantity of CO2 emitted per dollar of goods produced.

Davis said understanding the carbon footprint of Chinese products is important because the country exports more goods than anywhere else. Pollution from China also travels the world.

Previous research from UCI showed that air pollution from Chinese factories can blow across the Pacific Ocean and reach California. Likewise, CO2 levels affect climates around the world.

However, the study also found that if Chinese industries caught up to global standards for clean energy use and efficient manufacturing, the country could cut the CO2 associated with exports by more than 80 percent.