If you want to make a t-shirt, you can buy a blend of Ugandan and Indian raw cotton, ship it over to China for processing, then export it back to sell in Europe. It’s considerably cheaper to do it this way than simply grow, pick, and process, all in the same country – which is pretty mindblowing.
While globalization certainly has its benefits, it’s becoming increasingly clear that your health and millions of lives could be a hidden cost of this convenience.
A new study by the University of East Anglia (UEA), and published today in the journal Nature, has worked out the global scale of premature deaths related to transported air pollution from international trade.
The researchers looked at the premature deaths from heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that were linked to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), an air pollutant that is harmful to health when levels are high.
They found that 3.45 million global premature deaths were directly related to PM2.5 pollution in 2007. Around 22 percent (762,400) of deaths were related to goods and services produced in one region for consumption, and a further 12 percent (411,100) of that was associated with air pollutants emitted in a different region of the world.
Consumption of goods in Western Europe and the US is linked to over 108,600 premature deaths in China. In turn, PM2.5 pollution produced in China is linked to 3,100 deaths in Western Europe and the US. For every million consumers living in Western Europe, Canada, and the US, there were 416, 395, and 339 deaths in other regions worldwide, respectively.
“This indicates that premature mortality related to air pollution is more than just a local issue and our findings quantify the extent to which air pollution is a global problem,” study co-author Dabo Guan, a professor of climate change economics at UEA, said in a statement.
This work also underpins the idea that emissions and pollutions really don’t care for national borders. Firstly, air pollution is free to float across these borders, so one country's output is every country's problem. Secondly, and more importantly, it also shows that pointing the figure at particular nations for their pollution can often be pointless since production and consumption are deeply intertwined within the globalized world.
“International trade is further globalizing the issue of air pollution mortality by allowing production and consumption activities to be physically separated," Guan concluded. "In our global economy, the goods and services consumed in one region may entail production of large quantities of air pollution, and related mortality, in other regions."