The Hot Zone

Carbon Outsourcing

Posted by Alison Hawkes on March 10, 2010
Category : The Politics of Climate Change

By Alison Hawkes

Everyone points the finger these days to China, which has emerged as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. But come to think of it, that’s a little odd, isn’t it? The Chinese people, themselves, for the most part, live way below Western standards. They just produce many of the goods that we consume in the U.S., Europe, and Japan.

So what if we looked at greenhouse gas emissions in a way that shifts the responsibility not on the producer of goods, but to the consumer? The Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University took that perspective and published a paper on Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The study constructed a global model of the flow of imports and exports across 57 sectors and 113 countries or regions. It found that 23 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from export products, mostly destined to consumers in developed countries. In the U.S., for example, some 2.4 tons of CO2 per capita are emitted elsewhere, amounting to nearly 11 percent of emissions from consumer goods that were “outsourced.”

What does this mean for carbon reckoning? Well, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change currently only counts emissions produced within a country’s territory. Add Chinese-made goods, which are largely produced using coal for energy, and the U.S., Europe, and Japan come out with higher emissions under a consumptive-based accounting scheme (even after subtracting their own exports). Check out the graph below, published in the study.Flow of emissions

Of course, China could do a lot to better energy efficiency in the production of goods. And China does see direct benefits from exporting goods; one could even say its economy is built on selling cheap products abroad. But failure to account for a consumption-based scheme could be undermining efforts to regulate emissions.

Companies seeking to avoid more stringent European emissions standards, can, and probably do, locate abroad in a country without such regulations, just as they have done to avoid environmental laws. France, which ranks as the most carbon efficient country in the G20, owing to its dependence on low-carbon nuclear power, would surely be forced to take a harder look itself if its imports were calculated into its emissions.

The study points out that “the geographical separation of production and consumption complicates the fundamental questions of who is responsible for emissions and how the burden of mitigation ought to be shared.” In other words, we shouldn’t just blame China. Can we really make an honest effort at solving climate change without responsibility also falling to consumers?

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