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Cross-Border Pollution: A Growing International Problem

Pollution in one country can have serious environmental consequences in others

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Rescue Work Continues At South Korean Ferry Disaster Site
Chung Sung-Jun / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images
It’s a natural fact that wind and water don’t respect national boundaries. One country’s pollution quickly can, and often does, become another country’s environmental and economic crisis. And because the problem originates in another country, solving it becomes a matter of diplomacy and international relations, leaving the local people who are most affected with few real options.

A good example of this phenomenon is occurring in Asia, where cross-border pollution from China is causing serious environmental problems in Japan and South Korea as the Chinese continue to expand their economy at great environmental cost.

China Pollution Threatens Environment, Public Health in Nearby Nations
On the slopes of Mount Zao in Japan, the famous juhyo, or ice trees—along with the ecosystem that supports them and the tourism they inspire—are at risk of serious damage from acid caused by sulfur produced at factories in China's Shanxi province and carried on the wind across the Sea of Japan.

Schools in southern Japan and South Korea have had to suspend classes or restrict activities because of toxic chemical smog from China’s factories or sand storms from the Gobi Desert, which are either caused or made worse by severe deforestation. And in late 2005, an explosion at a chemical plant in northeastern China spilled benzene into the Songhua River, contaminating the drinking water of Russian cities downstream from the spill.

In 2007, the environmental ministers of China, Japan and South Korea agreed to look at the problem together. The goal is for Asian nations to develop a treaty on cross-border air pollution similar to agreements among nations in Europe and North America, but progress is slow and the inevitable political finger-pointing slows it even more.

Cross-Border Pollution is a Serious Global Issue
China is not alone as it struggles to find a workable balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability. Japan also created severe air and water pollution as it pushed hard to become the world's second largest economy after World War II, although the situation has improved since the 1970s when environmental regulations were imposed. And across the Pacific, the United States frequently places short-term economic gains before long-term environmental benefits.

China is Working to Reduce and Repair Environmental Damage
China has taken several steps recently to lessen its environmental impact, including announcing a plan to invest $175 billion (1.4 trillion yuan) in environmental protection between 2006 and 2010. The money—equal to more than 1.5 percent of China’s annual gross domestic product—will be used to control water pollution, improve air quality in China’s cities, increase solid waste disposal and reduce soil erosion in rural areas, according to the National Development and Reform Commission. China also made a commitment in 2007 to phase out incandescent light bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs—a move that could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 500 million tons annually. And in January 2008, China pledged to ban the production, sale and use of thin plastic bags within six months.

China is also taking part in international talks aimed at negotiating a new treaty on greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, which will replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires. Before long, China is expected to surpass the United States as the nation most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions worldwide—a cross-border pollution problem of global proportions.

Olympic Games May Lead to Better Air Quality in China
Some observers believe the Olympic Games may be a catalyst that will help China turn things around—at least in terms of air quality. China is hosting the Summer Olympics in Beijing in August 2008, and the nation is under pressure to clean up its air to avoid international embarrassment. The International Olympic Committee gave China a stern warning about environmental conditions, and some Olympic athletes have said they will not compete in certain events because of poor air quality in Beijing.

Pollution in Asia Could Affect Air Quality Worldwide
Despite these efforts, environmental degradation in China and other developing countries in Asia—including the problem of cross-border pollution—is likely to get worse before it gets better.

According to Toshimasa Ohohara, head of air pollution monitoring research at Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Study, emissions of nitrogen oxide—a greenhouse gas that is the primary cause of urban smog—are expected to increase 2.3 times in China and 1.4 times in East Asia by 2020 if China and other nations do nothing to curb them.

"A lack of political leadership in East Asia would mean a worldwide worsening of air quality," Ohohara said in an interview with AFP.

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