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.)