It’s been a long time coming, but a team led by Glen Peters, of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, has finally published a comprehensive “consumption-side” analysis of global greenhouse-gas emission, one that takes international trade fully into account.  

Estimates of “outsourced emissions” or “embodied carbon” have been knocking around for a while now, but this one is different.  This time the study – Growth in emission transfers via international trade from 1990 to 2008 — is comprehensive, and this time the publisher is the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, and that’s going to make the results, and their implications, harder to ignore. 

What consumption-side carbon accounting means is that, if a widget is manufactured in, say, China and then shipped to, say, the US – where it is “consumed” – the carbon embodied in the widget goes not on China’s books, as per the usual practice, but on America’s.  The difference makes a difference.  In fact, since 1990 – the Kyoto Protocol’s baseline year – 75% of the growth in the North’s consumption-based emissions took place in China. 

So what happens when such “Chinese emissions” are moved onto the consumers books?  

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First, and much in contrast to the usual storyline, in which China’s emissions have risen to become the world’s largest, the size of its carbon footprint drops by almost a fifth.  And once that’s happened, then even by this rather misleading metric (the developing countries argue, with good reason, that these kinds of comparisons should take account of historical emissions), China is no longer the top emitter. 

Second, the world’s consumers loom even larger than before.  And since most of them still reside in the wealthy “Annex B” countries, (UN speak) this means that even the small progress that these countries appear to have made in reducing their emissions growth is, well, a bit of an illusion.

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To quote the CICERO team directly:

 “… the global emissions associated with consumption in many developed countries have increased with a large share of the emissions originating in developing countries… In addition, we find that the emission transfers via international trade often exceed the emission reductions in the developed countries. Consequently, increased consumption in the Annex B countries has caused an increase in global emissions contrary to the territorial emission statistics reported to the UNFCCC.”

That last bit – that, as the Reuters story put it, “the shift in manufacturing to emerging nations is doing more to curb rich countries’ greenhouse gas emissions than measures they are taking to meet the U.N. pact to fight climate change” – is why this is news that’s going to stay news. 

There’s a lot more to say about all this, of course, but the bottom line, as noted by Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science (who wrote a paper on this subject last year), is that “we consume a lot of stuff that is produced in China and other developing countries.  Their CO2 emissions are helping support my consumption.”

Not even an economist could argue with that!