Over a third of the carbon emissions related to the consumption of goods in wealthy nations actually occur in developing countries, according to a new analysis by researchers with the Carnegie Institution. Annually, each person if the United States outsources 2.5 tons of carbon due to consumption habits, most frequently in China. In Europe the figure of ‘outsourced’ emissions rises to 4 tons per person.
“Instead of looking at carbon dioxide emissions only in terms of what is released inside our borders, we also looked at the amount of carbon dioxide released during the production of the things that we consume,” co-author Ken Caldeira said in a press release. Caldeira is a researcher in the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology.
Using trade data from 2004, researchers created a global model of the movement of products in 57 industries and across 113 countries and regions. Carbon emissions were then calculated as “imported” or “exported” by
“Just like the electricity that you use in your home probably causes CO2 emissions at a coal-burning power plant somewhere else, we found that the products imported by the developed countries of western Europe, Japan, and the United States cause substantial emissions in other countries, especially China,” says lead author Steven Davis of Carnegie Institution. “On the flip side, nearly a quarter of the emissions produced in China are ultimately exported.”
In total the researchers found that the United States outsources 11 percent of its total emissions to developing countries, while Japan outsources nearly 18 percent. European nations outsource even more of their emissions: from 20-50 percent. Some small wealthy nations, such as Switzerland, outsource over half of their total emissions.
“Where CO2 emissions occur doesn’t matter to the climate system,” says Davis. “Effective policy must have global scope. To the extent that constraints on developing countries’ emissions are the major impediment to effective international climate policy, allocating responsibility for some portion of these emissions to final consumers elsewhere may represent an opportunity for compromise.”
The researchers do not make policy recommendations given their analysis, but they write that “it is intuitive that individuals who benefit from a process should bear some responsibility for the associated emissions. Yet, national inventories such as those conducted annually by parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change account for only those emissions produced within sovereign territories, ignoring the benefit conveyed to consumers through international trade.”
The study is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Citation: Steven J. Davis and Ken Caldeira. Consumption-based accounting of CO2 Emissions. PNAS. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0906974107.
China is by far the largest “exporter” of carbon dioxide emissions, as seen in this map of the net flow of emissions embodied in trade among the major exporting and importing countries. Arrows indicate direction and magnitude of flow; numbers are megatons (millions of tons). Credit: Steven Davis/Carnegie Institution for Science.
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