Outsourcing Carbon Emissions

George Monbiot points out that Britain is accomplishing some of its reductions in carbon emissions by the simple expedient of outsourcing them to other countries:

• George Monbiot, Pass the Parcel, 23 May, 2011.

This gets around the spirit but not the letter of the Kyoto Protocol, since some these other countries, notably China, aren’t required to limit their carbon emissions! He writes:

It could have been worse. After the Treasury and the business department tried to scupper the UK’s long-term carbon targets, David Cameron stepped in to rescue them. The government has now promised to cut greenhouse gases by 50% by 2027, which means that, with a following wind, the UK could meet its legally-binding target of 80% by 2050. For this we should be grateful. But the coalition has resolved the tension between green and growth in a less than convincing fashion: by dumping responsibility for the environmental impacts on someone else.

The carbon cut we have made so far, and the carbon cut we are likely to make by 2027, have been achieved by means of a simple device: allowing other countries, principally China, to run polluting industries on our behalf.

Officially, the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen from 788 million tonnes in 1990 to 566mt in 2009. Unofficially, another 253 megatonnes should be added to our account. That’s the difference between the greenhouse gases released when manufacturing the goods we export and those released when manufacturing the goods we import. The reason why our official figures look better than those of most other nations is that so much of our manufacturing industry has moved overseas. It is this which allows the government to meet its targets. If the stuff we buy is made in China, China gets the blame.

This would be less of an issue if China were obliged to restrict its emissions. But under the only global treaty in force at the moment—the Kyoto Protocol—developing countries have no need to reduce their impacts. That suits the governments of both rich and poorer nations. Governments like ours can pretend that there is no conflict between green and growth. They avoid unpopular decisions, allowing people to consume whatever they fancy, and they keep business sweet by promising endless expansion. Governments like China’s can keep supplying us with the goods we couldn’t produce at home without breaking our obligations.

The “unofficial” calculation of 253 extra megatonnes of CO2 comes from here:

• Steven J. Davis and Ken Caldeira, Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 8 March 2011.

This paper claims that in wealthy countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, the United Kingdom, and France, more than 30% of consumption-related CO2 emissions were “imported”. In other words, a lot of their CO2 emissions weren’t actually done in those country: they happened during the production and shipping of goods that got imported to those countries!

You can see a bit of what’s going on from this picture (click to enlarge):

But be careful! For example: see the big fat arrow pointing from China to the US, with the number ‘395’ next to it? As far as I can tell, they got that number by working out how many megatonnes of CO2 were created by manufacturing goods in China and shipping them to the US during the year 2004… but then subtracting the megatonnes of CO2 created by manufacturing goods in the US and shipping them to China during that year.

So if I understand this correctly, there’s a lot of ‘cancellation’ going on in this picture. And that could fool the casual reader. After all, it’s not like CO2 produced in the US while making goods for export to China really helps cancel out the CO2 produced in China while making goods for export to the US! So, I’d prefer to see a picture that had labelled arrows pointing both ways between China and the US, and similarly for other countries or groups of countries.

(By the way, the EU is counted as one lump for the purposes of this picture.)

But that’s a small nitpick: this article is full of interesting things. For example, the authors say that the surge of carbon emissions since 2000 has been driven

not only by growth of the global population and per-capita GDP, but also by unanticipated global increases in the energy intensity of GDP (energy per unit GDP) and the carbon intensity of energy (emissions per unit energy).

And, they say that in 2004, 23% of world-wide CO2 emissions, or 6.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, were associated to international trade, primarily exports from China and other developing countries to rich countries.

(As you can see, the numbers labelling those arrows in the picture above don’t add up to anything like 6,200. That’s what made me suspect that there’s a lot of ‘cancellation’ going on in that picture.)

15 Responses to Outsourcing Carbon Emissions

  1. Arrow says:

    There is an arrow from US to China (26) and EU to China (16) in the picture though which indicates there is no cancellation.

    • John Baez says:

      Good point. I probably shouldn’t have been blogging when I was incredibly tired and stuck in an airport in Japan for 5 hours, but it was either that or go insane from boredom. (I was coming back from doing thesis defenses for three grad students of mine at UC Riverside who just finished up. I tried to do them via Skype to reduce carbon emissions, but there’s an outdated UC rule saying the thesis committee needs to be physically present.)

      I’m still confused, though. The authors write:

      The difference between production emissions (FPr) and consumption emissions (FCr) represents the net effect of emissions embodied in trade (EET) and therefore equals emissions embodied in exports (EEE) less emissions embodied in imports (EEI). A positive difference reflects the net export of emissions and a negative value indicates the net import of emissions.

      which suggests taking a difference. Then they write, about the figure I showed:

      Approximately 6.2 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2, 23% of all CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel burning (F), were emitted during the production of goods that were ultimately consumed in a different country. Where exported from emerging markets to developed countries, these emissions reinforce the already large global disparity in per-capita emissions and reveal the incompleteness of regional efforts to decarbonize.

      The 10 countries and Middle East region highlighted in Fig. 1 are the largest net exporters (blue) and importers (red) of EET, together accounting for 71% of the total difference in regional emissions FCr instead of FPr in 2004. In other countries, the balance of EET is close to zero.

      Superimposed vectors in Fig. 1 represent the largest interregional fluxes of EET (≥10 Mt CO2 y−1). The dominant global feature is the export of emissions embodied in goods from China to consumers in the United States, Japan, and Western Europe. In China alone, 1.4 Gt of CO2 emissions were linked to consumption in other countries/regions.

      I imagine I could decipher this with an hour of careful thought when I’m no longer jet-lagged, but at least in my current state I don’t find it strikingly clear. Can anyone help?

      What do the arrows in the chart really mean, and how come they add up to so much less than 6,200?

      I thought the arrows indicated “EET”, which is computed as a difference. But then why are there arrows pointing both ways between China and the US, for example?

      • Arrow says:

        As I understand it the arrows don’t add up to 6200 cause they only represent “outsourced” emissions, in other words emissions where the country producing the goods and country consuming them were different. In other words there are no arrows which originate and end in the same country in the picture.

        • John Baez says:

          That doesn’t make sense to me, because the authors say that in 2004, 23% of world-wide CO2 emissions, or 6.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, were associated to “international trade, primarily exports from China and other developing countries to rich countries”. Total CO2 emissions were about 4 times more than that.

      • Arrow says:


        That doesn’t make sense to me, because the authors say that in 2004, 23% of world-wide CO2 emissions, or 6.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, were associated to “international trade, primarily exports from China and other developing countries to rich countries”. Total CO2 emissions were about 4 times more than that.

        I take it to mean that 6200 was total anthropogenic CO2 emissions, if you then take 23% of that, you arrive at 1426 and if you look at the map the arrows seem to add up to roughly that amount.

        I don’t know what the total anthropogenic CO2 emissions were in 2004 but the Wikipedia graph seems to point to something around 7.5 gigatonnes, which is much closer to 6.2 than to the 25 gigatonnes you imply.


        • John Baez says:

          Arrow wrote:

          I don’t know what the total anthropogenic CO2 emissions were in 2004 but the Wikipedia graph seems to point to something around 7.5 gigatonnes, which is much closer to 6.2 than to the 25 gigatonnes you imply.

          That graph shows gigatonnes of carbon, not carbon dioxide. Each tonne of carbon burns to yield 3.667 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The Energy Information Administration says that in 2004, 27.4 gigatonnes of CO2 were emitted from burning fossil fuels. That’s corresponds to 7.47 gigatonnes of carbon. So, it agrees with the Wikipedia graph.

          When Davis and Caldeira wrote:

          We find that, in 2004, 23% of global CO2 emissions, or 6.2 gigatonnes CO2, were traded internationally…

          I assumed they meant that if we take the 2004 global carbon dioxide emissions, and multiply them by 0.23, we’ll get 6.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. Let me check that now!

          27.4 × 0.23 = 6.3

          Well, that’s pretty close. So, I still believe they’re claiming that 6.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide were “traded internationally”. And the arrows on that graph don’t add up to anything like that. That graph claims to be about carbon dioxide, not carbon. So I’m still puzzled.

          Thanks for trying to help me figure this out.

      • Arrow says:

        You are right, the graph is about carbon, so my theory is wrong.

        The only other option I can come up with is that they made the same mistake and mislabeled the graph when in reality it shows carbon not carbon dioxide. The arrows sum to 1626 while 23% of 2004 global carbon emissions (7470) would be 1718, the difference could be due to other trade routes not included in the picture.

  2. DavidTweed says:

    More stuff that is a bit confusing:

    The net effect of EET is concentrated geographically (Fig. 4, Upper). China is by far the largest net exporter of emissions, followed by Russia, the Middle East, South Africa, Ukraine, and India and, to a lesser extent, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and areas of South America (Fig. 5, Row 2 Left).

    According to Wikipedia “Oil and gas dominate Russian exports”, the middle east primarily exports fuel, south africa does export a lot of stuff but coal is one of the big exports. So it seems like the figures mix exports of manufactured goods (that could at least be done more locally) and exports of extracted fossil fuels to places that can buy them.

    • John Baez says:

      In a footnote to their paper, Davis and Caldeira write:

      Note that carbon embodied in exports of petroleum products does not include the carbon physically contained in the products, but only the emissions required to produce and transport them. The carbon contained in these fossil fuels would appear in the inventory of production emissions of the country where the CO2 is released to the atmosphere. That CO2 emission would be assigned to the inventory of consumption emissions of the country where the goods or services produced by those emissions was consumed.

      I’m not sure this makes things less confusing, but it must help to know this is how they think about these things.

  3. 荆晓艺 says:

    Hi professor. What do you think about the Three Gorges Dam? Many claim that the drought disaster happening recently is caused by the big dam.

    • John Baez says:

      Hi! I haven’t heard from you in a while; I hope you’re doing well. Your name as it appears here on the blog looks a bit intimidating to people like me who can’t read Chinese, so I’ll remind people that you are “Jing Xiaoyi”.

      I’m not an expert on the Three Gorges Dam, though my wife was lucky enough to take a boat tour of the Yangtze River going through areas that are flooded by the dam now.

      I hadn’t known that the dam was blamed for droughts, but that’s mentioned here:

      • Mara Hvistendahl, China’s Three Gorges Dam: an environmental catastrophe?, Scientific American, 25 March 2008.

      and more recently here:

      • David Stanway and Ken Wills, Q+A — Is the Three Gorges Dam responsible for the Yangtze drought?, Reuters, 27 May 2011.

      Since Reuters news articles tend to go away after a while, let me quote this one for you:

      A 200-day drought in central China has provoked a fierce debate among scientists and government researchers about the impact of big dams like the Three Gorges on local weather systems.

      Government officials and experts have been forced to respond to a flurry of accusations by netizens and environmental activists that the world’s biggest hydropower plant has disrupted downstream water flows and could have a long-term impact on local weather patterns.


      Experts say that the 600-km (350-mile) long reservoir required to serve the 26 700-megawatt turbines at the Three Gorges hydropower plant prevents considerable volumes of water from flowing downstream.

      But some environmentalists and climate specialists have also said that the reservoir acts as a giant heat reflector that affects the microclimate of the region, raising temperatures and reducing rainfall.

      They also point to longer-term impact, saying that large reservoirs like the Three Gorges are net greenhouse gas producers because they submerged vast tracts of forest and farmland that would otherwise have absorbed climate-altering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.


      Government experts have put the blame for this year’s drought squarely on natural phenomena.

      A statement issued on the government website (www.gov.cn) on Wednesday cited meteorologists as saying that seasonal high pressure from the northwest Pacific subtropical zone was weaker and more easterly than normal, and this was making it difficult for cold fronts to reach the downstream areas of the Yangtze.

      Shen Guofang, an engineer involved in the design of the Three Gorges, acknowledge that the project has altered the climate in the region, but said the effects were confined to within 2 km (one mile) of the reservoir and it could not be blamed for the drought affecting downstream regions.


      One of the main arguments in support of the project during its construction was its ability to regulate the water levels of the Yangtze, easing cross-country navigation, guaranteeing irrigation for millions of downstream farmers and taming a river responsible for the most calamitous floods in China’s history.

      Zheng Shouren of the China Academy of Engineering, also one of the dam’s chief designers, told the official Xinhua news agency that the drought would have been much worse if not for the Three Gorges, noting that water stored in the reservoir had been used to raise downstream flows and irrigatge crops.

      The reservoir is in the middle of a programme aimed at releasing billions of cubic metres of water downstream. The move will eventually reduce water levels at the Three Gorges Dam to 145 metres (450 feet), well below the 156 metres required to run all its turbines effectively.

      But the release of emergency water supplies could cause problems. Guan Fengjun, director of the geological department at the Ministry of Land and Resources, told China National Radio that the drastic move could increase landslide risks as the torrent overwhelms the Yangtze’s fragile banks.


      The issue reflects a wider divide in government about large-scale hydropower as China tries to wean itself off polluting and climate-changing fossil fuels over the next decade.

      Since the Three Gorges Dam was completed in 2005, China has approved no new large-scale hydropower plants. Premier Wen Jiabao, a geologist, is said to be sceptical about the massive financial, environmental and human costs of such projects.

      The cabinet, chaired by Wen, concluded last week that while Three Gorges had provided benefits, it had also increased earthquake and landslide risks in the region and disrupted downstream irrigation.

      But there are signs that hydropower is back in favour. Energy officials say new dams on the Yangtze upstream and elsewhere will be crucial in efforts to raise the proportion of non-fossil fuel energy to 15 percent of the total energy mix by 2020.

      They say China will put another 140 gigawatts of hydropower capacity into construction before 2015, with big dam constructors eyeing Tibet, the Yangtze upstream and the previously untouched Nu River in the southwest.

      The following article is a bit more interesting, though the remark about Mao and Tao sounds like the sort of stuff people write who haven’t actually spent much time in China:

      • Peter Bosshard, Mao, Tao and the Three Gorges Dam, Huffington Post, 26 May 2011.

      The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River is the world’s largest hydropower project. It has often been touted as a model for dam building around the world. Now the Chinese government has officially acknowledged the project’s serious social, environmental and geological problems. What are the lessons from the Three Gorges experience?

      For many years, Chinese leaders have celebrated the mega-dam on the Yangtze as a symbol of the country’s economic and technological progress. With a capacity of 18,200 megawatts, the hydropower project is indeed a masterpiece of engineering. In spite of its daunting complexity, the government completed it ahead of schedule in 2008. The dam generates two percent of China’s electricity, and substitutes at least 30 million tons of coal per year. Its cost has been estimated at between $27 and $88 billion.

      Costs and benefits

      The social and environmental costs may be even more staggering than the project’s financial price tag. The Three Gorges Dam has displaced more than 1.2 million people. Hundreds of local officials diverted compensation money into their own pockets, but protests against such abuses were suppressed. Because it no longer controls the economy and land is scarce, the government was not able to provide jobs and land to the displaced people as promised. Unlike other governments, China has set up a program to provide pensions to the 18 million people displaced by dams in the past.

      Damming the Three Gorges caused massive impacts on the ecosystem of the Yangtze, Asia’s longest river. The barrage stopped the migration of fish, and diminished the river’s capacity to clean itself. Pollution from dirty industries along the reservoir is causing frequent toxic algae blooms. Commercial fisheries have plummeted, the Yangtze river dolphin has already been extinct, and species such as the Chinese Sturgeon are threatened by the same fate. Due to dam building and pollution, rivers and lakes around the world have lost more species to extinction than any other major ecosystem.

      Struggling with unexpected impacts

      While the social and environmental problems had been predicted, government officials were not prepared for the massive geological impacts of the Three Gorges Dam. The water level in the reservoir fluctuates between 145 and 175 meters every year. This destabilizes the slopes of the Yangtze Valley, and is triggering frequent landslides. According to Chinese experts, erosion affects half the reservoir area, and more than 100 miles of riverbanks are at risk of collapsing. More than 300,000 additional people will have to be relocated to stabilize the banks of the reservoir.

      Since most of the silt load from the Yangtze’s upper reaches is now deposited in the reservoir, the downstream regions are being starved of sediment. As a consequence, up to four square kilometers of coastal wetlands are eroded every year. The Yangtze delta is subsiding, and seawater intrudes up the river, affecting agriculture and drinking water supplies. An international team of scientists recently found that no less than 472 million people have likely been affected by the downstream impacts of large dams around the world, and that these impacts are often neglected during the planning of such projects.

      Scientists agree that the reservoirs of high dams can trigger earthquakes. The Three Gorges Dam sits on two fault lines, and hundreds of small tremors have been recorded since the reservoir began filling. While the dam has been built to withstand strong earthquakes, the villages and towns in its vicinity have not. As global dam building increasingly moves into mountain areas with active tectonic faults, the seismic risks of reservoirs will increase.

      Hydropower projects have often been proposed as a response to global warming, yet the Three Gorges Dam illustrates how climate change creates new risks for such projects. In a nutshell, past records can no longer be used to predict a river’s future streamflow. The dam operators planned to fill the Three Gorges reservoir for the first time in 2009, but were not able to do so due to insufficient rains. The current year has brought Central China the worst drought in 50 years. Like other projects around the world, the Three Gorges Dam is facing serious risks and losses due to the vagaries of climate change.

      A new approach is needed

      Scientists had warned of the Three Gorges Dam’s impacts throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Yet their opinions were ignored and silenced. During the construction phase, the giant project, which had originally been championed by Mao Zedong, was frequently visited by government and party leaders. It has also served as a tour stop for many visiting government delegations from Asia, Africa and Europe.

      In recent years, the Chinese government has quietly toned down its enthusiasm for the project. “We thought of all the possible issues,” the secretary general of the Yangtze River Forum told the Wall Street Journal in August 2007. “But the problems are all more serious than we expected.” When the dam was inaugurated in 2008, the Chinese president and his prime minister were conspicuously absent. And on May 18, China’s highest government body for the first time acknowledged the serious problems at the Three Gorges. “The project is now greatly benefiting the society in the aspects of flood prevention, power generation, river transportation and water resource utilization,” the government maintained, but it has “caused some urgent problems in terms of environmental protection, the prevention of geological hazards and the welfare of the relocated communities.”

      China’s economy is booming, and its water and energy needs are pressing. Yet the Three Gorges Dam was not the only option for replacing coal. While the dam was under construction, the country’s economy actually became more wasteful in its use of energy. According to the Energy Foundation, it would have been “cheaper, cleaner and more productive for China to have invested in energy efficiency” rather than new power plants.

      A few hundred miles from the Three Gorges reservoir, the water works of Dujiangyan have irrigated the fertile Sichuan plains and prevented floods through an ingenious system of levees for more than 2000 years. They reflect the Taoist philosophy of working with the forces of nature, while the Yangtze dam symbolizes the Maoist (and Confucian) approach of subduing the natural world.

      The Three Gorges Dam has been completed, but it is not too late to draw lessons for the mega-projects which have been proposed on the Mekong and the Amazon, the Congo and the Salween, in Ethiopia and the Himalayas. The Yangtze dam demonstrates that even with the greatest technical skills, our power to dominate nature is limited. It calls on us to harness our great technological progress for solutions that reduce poverty while respecting the limits of our ecosystems.

      By the way, I’ll be visiting Jilin University for a math workshop in August, and the organizers have planned a camping trip near Changbai Mountain. I’m really looking forward to it!

  4. jingxiaoyi says:

    Hi John Baez.
    Thank you for your comment. I indeed have been disappeared from this blog for a long time. I’ve been working on my English(IELTS) test and application last year. And your blog had been blocked for a while in China. So far, it is still not stable to connect to your blog. I use illegal software to connect the facebook, youtube, wikipedia and your blog.
    But recently I feel very sad. I suddenly come to an idea that many people in other countries don’t like chinese. I’ve been asked by some people from other countries again and again what sort of animals I eat, cat, dog?
    I just don’t know how to answer them because I have no idea of eating cats or dogs and I clearly remember the first time when I heard a phd student from germany saying that chinese eat everything during a summer school.
    In general, I feel extremely sad. I suffer from those questions. Their words often haunt me.
    I used to be a guy who has strong awareness of protecting animals and environment. But recently, I find that I am not welcomed at all. They will be surprised that a chinese show his mercy to animals.

    Hopefully, you make progress in your field.


    • John Baez says:

      Jingxiaoyi wrote:

      I’ve been working on my English (IELTS) test and application last year.

      Good luck! I think I can tell that your writing skills have improved. You’re way ahead of me. My wife speaks Chinese, since her specialty is comparing classical Chinese and Greek culture, but all I can say in Chinese is “two bottles of beer” and “thank you”.

      And your blog had been blocked for a while in China. So far, it is still not stable to connect to your blog.

      That’s too bad! Thanks for telling me. I would hope the information on this blog is useful in China, just as anywhere else.

      But recently I feel very sad. I suddenly come to an idea that many people in other countries don’t like Chinese.

      I urge you not to worry about this too much. Many people around the world don’t like Americans, but many people do. It’s the same with Chinese. It’s a stupid generalization to think that all Americans act some way, or all Chinese. Often these generalizations come from lack of direct experience: having lived in both places, I know that both countries are full of wonderful kind people, and also full of mean nasty people. Most people can be either kind or nasty, depending on the situation. I know I can.

      Nationalistic generalizations can be dangerous, because they make it harder for people to live together in peace. In particular, if China and America don’t continue to find ways to live together peacefully, the whole world will suffer a lot. The only thing people like you and me can do about this is to be friendly to people from other countries even when they criticize ours.

      I’ve been asked by some people from other countries again and again what sort of animals I eat, cat, dog? I just don’t know how to answer them because I have no idea of eating cats or dogs.

      Well, I’ve lived in Shanghai, and I’ve been to a restaurant there that had dog meat on the menu. I asked about it, and they told me that dog was not in season. I was very surprised to hear that there was a season for dogs! But it turns out some people think dog meat is yang, so they eat it during the winter.

      You can read more about this on that famous online encylopedia, in the article on ‘dog meat’. If you do, you’ll see lots of Chinese organizations have organized to protest the eating of dog meat.

      In France they have butchers that sell horse meat. I took a photograph of one in the Latin Quarter of Paris:

      Americans tend to find this shocking, because they don’t eat horse meat.

      Does any of this make me dislike Chinese people, or French people? No—that would be silly. I could easily list many things people do that are much worse than eating these particular animals. And besides that, probably most Chinese or French don’t actually eat these animals!

    • DavidTweed says:

      (Quick comment before I vanish.)

      There’s often two things, the people of a country and the “national governing and corporate machinery” (which is often run by a relatively small number of people) which are often only very loosely connected. It’s quite common to have problems with the “national governing and corporate machinery” and its actions without having problems with most of the people. I have concerns about China and about the USA government/corporations, but then I also have problems with the British government/corporations (I’m British), but I don’t have problems with the majority of the populations.

      Perhaps the saddest thing is that real policy issues seem to transform into mischaracterisations of the population of a country so easily.

  5. Phil Henshaw says:

    The data on how some countries buy energy services from other countries is rather powerful, but mostly not traceable to the individual businesses that do it. This is a global economy.

    That’s part of the reason that an accounting method like my Systems Energy Assessment (SEA) is needed. For energy accounting it’s a quite effective method for correcting for outdourcing.

    The strong evidence of different countries do large amounts of outsourcing is that for the world economy, GDP and energy use have long been very simply and directly correlated, but for national accounts they are not. World GDP for several decades has been growing steadily, with energy use growing at 60% of that rate, the difference being due to a similarly steady rate of improving efficiency in turning energy into wealth.

    US GDP continued to grow as fast or faster than the world’s, but our energy use started to fall off in ~1960. I know this contradicts all popular belief, but that’s why you might not trust anything you hear on the news about how the world works… The strong implication is that the US has been ever increasingly outsourcing its energy use.

    see figures 1, 2 & 5 at
    and http://www.synapse9.com/SEA
    for the hard science that proves the premise with slides if you want to poke into environmental systems science a bit

    The real question is where does the diverging tendency of the US economy’s increasing dependency on other countries do the productive work we consume come to an end, as all divergences necessarily do. That’s another discussion, but the evidence that other countries, like India and China, are now weaning themselves off from working for us more and more, to working for themselves for a change, seems to be getting stronger I think. It may have big consequences.

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