Outsourcing CO2 emissions

The greenhouse gas output of China and elsewhere is growing as they make goods that are then exported.

THE world’s richest countries are increasingly “outsourcing” their carbon pollution to China and other rising economies, according to a draft United Nations report.

Outsourcing of emissions comes in the form of electronic devices such as smartphones, cheap clothes and other goods manufactured in China and other rising economies but consumed in the United States and Europe.

The draft of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says emissions of carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases warming the planet grew twice as fast in the first decade of the 21st century than during the previous three decades. Much of that rise was due to the burning of coal, the report says. And much of that coal went to power factories in China and other rising economies that produce goods for US and European consumers.

Since 2000, annual carbon dioxide emissions for China and the other rising economies more than doubled to nearly 14 gigatonnes a year, according to the draft report. But about two gigatonnes a year of that was produced making goods for export.

The picture is similar for other rising economies producing goods for export, the report finds.

“A growing share of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in developing countries is released in the production of goods and services exported, notably from upper middle income countries to high income countries,” the report says.

Other middle income countries, with smaller exports, saw a more gradual rise in emissions. For the poorest countries in the world, however, emissions have flat-lined since 1990.

Factories in China and other rising economies now produce more carbon pollution than industries in the US and Europe.

“A growing share of global emissions is released in the manufacture of products that are traded across international borders,” the draft says.

The newly wealthy elites of China, India and Brazil are flying more, buying more cars and otherwise fuelling the consumption that is driving climate change. But their per capita greenhouse gas emissions are still below those in the US and Europe – a gap that China and India regularly cite at climate talks to deflect pressure to cut emissions.

In addition, a large and growing share of the carbon pollution attributed to China and those rising economies was generated in the production of goods that ended up in the US and Europe.

The outsourcing of those emissions has skewed efforts to account for all global emissions, which typically was conducted on a national basis. But those accounting efforts are no longer accurate, according to analysts.

“If we are just looking at our national inventory to understand the emissions trends, it is just not telling the full picture of our impacts,” said Cynthia Cummis, an expert on greenhouse gas accounting at the World Resources Institute. “We need to understand the full life-cycle of all the goods and services that we are purchasing and selling.”

There is now growing debate about how to assign responsibility for emissions generated producing goods that were made in one country but ultimately destined for another.

“The consumers that are importing those goods have some responsibility for those goods that are happening outside of our boundaries,” Cummis said.

The report is due to be published in Germany in April. It is the third in a series of reports by the IPCC, summing up the state of the climate crisis since 2007 and prospects for solutions. The first part was released in September.

The draft report is stark about the chances of avoiding dangerous climate change – especially if deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are pushed back beyond 2030. Temperatures have already risen by 0.8°C since the dawning of the industrial age. Unless there are deep cuts in emissions – up to 70% of current levels by 2050 – or a near-quadrupling of renewable energy, governments may have to fall back increasingly on experimental technologies for sucking carbon dioxide from the air to avoid dangerous warming, the report says. – Guardian News & Media

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