How Much of China's Emissions Mess Is Really Ours?
There's plenty of interesting stuff in the latest paper in Nature Geosciences about the growth in global greenhouse-gas emissions—that the growth is overwhelmingly concentrated in developing countries, for example, or that natural carbon "sinks" such as oceans appear to be less effective at absorbing carbon dioxide than in years past. (More on the paper here and here.)
But one thing in particular stands out: The role played by the rich world's "offshoring" of manufacturing emissions to the developing world, especially China. The idea that rich countries are, fundamentally, responsible for a significant share of developing-world emissions just adds another wrinkle to global talks that are already going nowhere fast.
According to the paper, "Trends in the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide," a big part of the emissions growth in developing countries is due to their manufacture of things for export—from flip-flops to iPhones.
In China, for instance, 30% of the growth in emissions from 1990 to 2002 is attributable to the production of exports, the paper says. In recent years, as Chinese factories ramped up production, that share has grown—accounting for 50% of Chinese emissions growth between 2002 and 2005.
Overall, the paper concludes, 30% of total emissions in China—the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases—came from "the production of exports" in 2005.
Not even Chinese officials have gone that far. In raising the issue earlier this year, Chinese government officials estimated between 15% and 25% of the country's emissions came from the production of stuff the rich world no longer makes for itself.
This whole idea has a history. Academics have been arguing for years that part of China's emissions growth should be chalked up to the Western consumers who buy the stuff. Indeed, the paper says that while U.S. domestic emissions grew only 6% between 1997 and 2004, "consumption emissions" grew 17%. "A key factor driving the growth of consumption-based emissions was the import of manufactured products from China," the paper concludes.
And U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke sparked a brief firestorm this summer when he floated the idea that American consumers pick up part of the tab for those emissions, an idea the administration quickly squelched.
The point is—yes, China and the developing world are responsible for the overwhelming majority of new greenhouse-gas emissions, both in recent years and in years to come. But, as the paper notes, a "considerable share" of developing world emissions are now "associated with international trade."
Which seems to suggest that not just the old Kyoto division between developed and developing countries is outdated—but also that the very idea that greenhouse-gas emissions carry a single passport in the first place is no longer totally valid.
All of which only promises to make already tortured climate talks an even bigger source of friction beteween the haves and the have-nots.