Outsourcing Greenhouse Gas Emissions to the Developing World
In many developed nations, increased energy efficiency has effectively lowered emissions of carbon dioxide. However, the cuts in advanced economies are merely an illusion, as manufacturing and dirty industries have moved offshore to the developing world such as China and India. These countries produce goods cheaply which Western consumers like. But that cheap price is a reflection of not only lower wages for workers, but also lax pollution controls and environmental standards.
Developed countries have been reducing their carbon emissions for some years now, some in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol is a non-binding international agreement to lower the production greenhouse gas emissions. However, the protocol makes no mention of the consumption of greenhouse gas emissions. In the current state of global trade, advanced economies, with a few exceptions, are primarily based on imports.
A study to determine the extent of outsourced carbon emissions was conducted by the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway. According to lead researcher Glen Peters, "Our study shows for the first time that emissions from increased production of internationally traded products have more than offset the emissions reductions achieved under the Kyoto Protocol...this suggests that the current focus on territorial emissions in a subset of countries may be ineffective at reducing global emissions without some mechanisms to monitor and report emissions from the production of imported goods and services."
The study found that developed nations reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by two percent from 1990 to 2008. However, when imports are factored in, those emissions actually increased seven percent during that time. If Russia and Ukraine are excluded due to their economic collapse in the 90's, that increase in emissions jumps up to twelve percent.
The largest exporter of emissions by far is China. It is the home to 75 percent of the developed world’s outsourced emissions. China's rapid economic growth has stemmed from its intensely export-based economy. It is currently the largest emitter of CO2. However, when export-based emissions are not factored it, its carbon footprint drops dramatically, putting it well behind the United States.
It is not enough for nations to merely cut their own emissions and claim that they are doing something to slow down climate change. Emissions must be calculated from the consumption side rather than the production side. In a globalized economy, those emissions can be very hard to quantify. It is best for each individual consumer to stay aware when they are purchasing goods. At the same time, exporting nations must also be held responsible for lowering their emissions.
This study has been published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Link to published article: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/04/19/1006388108