Are Americans Being Punished for China’s Pollution?

While financial analysts consider the impact of how China’s devaluing of the Yuan may affect the country’s exports, residents of western states are receiving one Chinese export for free—pollution.

According to a new study supported by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NASA, ozone precursor emissions from China are blowing across the Pacific Ocean and increasing ozone levels in the western United States. This finding highlights the difficulty with complying with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed ozone rule, which forces states to further reduce ozone emissions even though, according to the study, China’s ozone emissions have offset 43 percent of the reductions states achieved over the last few years.

The EPA’s ozone rule would cut national standards for ground-level ozone by as much as 20 percent. This regulation could force hundreds of communities and even several national parks out of compliance with the new rule and put them at risk of losing millions of dollars in federal funding for transportation projects. Several areas in the U.S. are already out of compliance with the current standard, and lowering it even further would set a standard that not even national parks with zero industrial activity can achieve.

The rule would come at high cost: the National Association of Manufacturers estimates the ozone rule will cost $140 billion each year in lost economic growth, and lead to 1.4 million fewer American jobs. President Obama is essentially asking Americans to pay billions of dollars to fix a problem that is not confined to our borders and may have no effect on air pollution or health in the United States. According to JPL scientist Jessica Neu, “…even if you are making big efforts to reduce your emissions, what other countries are doing could offset that.” For this reason, EPA should withdraw its proposed ozone rule.

China’s Ozone Problem

The new study, published in Nature Geoscience, found that Chinese ozone has offset about 43% of the ozone reductions that were expected between 2005 and 2010 in the western United States. This is because China, currently the world’s second biggest economy, saw a 21% rise in ozone-forming pollutants between 2005 and 2010 even as U.S. emissions have declined.

EPA has proposed cutting the national ground-level ozone standard from 75 parts per billion to between 65 and 70 ppb, and perhaps as low as 60 ppb. At these levels, many parts of the country, including national parks in the western United States, which have no industrial activity whatsoever, could be out of compliance. Areas deemed out of compliance can face stiff penalties, including loss of federal funding, and be forced to curtail industrial activity, which would destroy jobs and limit economic growth.

With China’s ozone emissions drifting across the Pacific, many countries on the west coast may find that they cannot achieve EPA’s tighter standards—regardless of any steps they take to curtail emissions.

Huge Costs, Small Benefits

Given the levels of ozone precursors coming into the United States from China, the alleged benefits of the ozone rule will be lower than EPA calculates, and even by EPA’s own estimates, the proposed ozone rule could be the costliest federal rule ever.

EPA claims that further ozone reductions will improve air quality and public health. Even if there was merit to the claim that a tighter ozone standard would improve public health, it is difficult for the United States to realize these benefits unless China adopts serious emission limits to reduce the ozone coming into the U.S. from abroad.

Despite rhetoric from the Chinese leadership that they are engaging in a “war against pollution,” it is unlikely that China will see significant reductions in air pollution anytime soon. It is unsurprising that China has made strong environmental pledges ahead of UN climate talks in December, as the country seeks to secure legitimacy as a global power both with its own people and with the international community. To accomplish lofty environmental goals, economists have said the government must let an already decelerating economic growth slow even further.

Air pollution is an undeniable problem in China, and the people want a solution. At the same time, however, they are demanding more passenger automobiles than any other country in the world and an increased standard of living that can only be achieved with more economic development, not less. While the country is taking steps to reduce air pollution, ozone will continue to make its way across the Pacific and into the United States. Therefore, it is unfair for the Obama administration to force states to further reduce ozone when our air quality is in part determined by Chinese pollution we cannot control.


The Obama administration wants to lower ozone standards in the United States, forcing hundreds of communities to adopt costly policies to comply with unattainable standards. At the same time, China will continue exporting pollution to the United States, offsetting much of the progress we have made under the current standard. The EPA should keep the current ozone standards and avoid inflicting huge economic burdens on Americans towards what could be an unattainable goal.

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