Are China’s Carbon Emissions China’s?

The United States and other nations that trade heavily with China are indirectly responsible for nearly a quarter of China’s carbon emissions, according to a briefing note issued late Friday by the U.K.’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Last week, we wrote about a new study showing that global carbon emissions in 2006 were 35 percent above the 1990 baseline set down in the Kyoto Protocol. For some time, head-scratching over a successor treaty to Kyoto has occupied climate scientists and economists. This task is becoming much more difficult as it becomes clear that carbon-emissions trends may not belong to individual nations at all, but the fluid trade systems that weave them together. “[Research] suggests that a focus on emissions within national borders may miss the point,” the Tyndall authors write.

Tao Wang and Jim Watson conclude in the briefing note, titled “Who Owns China’s Carbon Emissions?”:

Whilst the nation state is at the heart of most international negotiations and treaties such as those for combating climate change, global trade means that a county’s carbon footprint is open to some interpretation. Should countries be concerned with emissions within their borders (as is currently the case), or should they also be responsible for emissions due to the production of good and services they consume? The scale of emissions from exports from countries such as China and the neglect of emissions from international transport provide some arguments for the latter approach.

This research opens the door for confusion and contradiction among players in the U.S. climate debates. Are proponents of free-trade likely to voluntarily accept research about–and therefore responsibility for–the fraction of trade partners’ emissions generated by goods the U.S. buys? Will U.S. companies that move production off-shore, to China and other developing countries, count emissions in the nation they are generated or the nation their goods are sold? How can proponents of national legislation restrict themselves to Congress, when only international treaties can address the full carbon footprint of American consumers. These questions strike at the heart of what it means to live in a globalized world–and even who we are as individuals, Americans? Global consumers? Economic players on the playing field of international economic regulatory bodies, such as NAFTA or the World Trade Organization? These questions need to be answered as a post-Kyoto plan is designed.


Click on figure for more detail. See below for more discussion:

The thorny questions that emerge from this research are a subset in the years-long debate already underway about who should bear responsibility for carbon emissions. Developed nations, or at least the U.S., argue that they shouldn’t regulate until after the fastest-growing emitters buckled down. China is the fastest growing and the largest emitter. China and other growing economies say that the Western world has had the largest cumulative impact on emissions. Data backing arguments in this debate is cogently summarized in a May PNAS paper we wrote about here. This graphic compares four sets of data, each of which buffers somebody’s argument in the international finger-pointing. The bar on the left shows the nations responsible for cumulative emissions. The next bar to the right shows the 2004 emissions totals for the various countries. The third bar shows the growth among various carbon polluters in 2004. The last bar shows world population–an ominous sign for the future of emissions growth.

Things might change very quickly–even more quickly than they have been–if a global leader emerged to take responsible action to address emissions.

[NOTE: If the name Tyndall doesn’t ring a bell, check out either Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming or Chapter One of the IPCC Working Group I’s Fourth Assessment Report.]

— Eric R.

2 Responses to Are China’s Carbon Emissions China’s?

  1. Earl Killian says:

    This sounds a bit like the old discussion of whether GDP or GNP was the more meaningful measure (actually they are both bogus, but that is another topic altogether). While I certainly understand the point that the U.S. is shifting emissions to China, ultimately I see national borders as still relevant because that is where regulatory authority ends. The one exception to that is the U.S. should, once it finally puts a price on its own greenhouse gas emissions, put a price on imports from nations that do not similarly use their regulatory authority to reflect the cost of externalities in the products they produce.

    Here is a semi-relevant quote from George Monbiot’s Manifesto for a New World Order. It serves as a reminder of how difficult it will be to regulate the animals:

    “The state, like a tree, is essentially immobile. While it can expand its access to resources by extending its roots into the soil on which other trees are growing, it must adapt to the circumstances in which it finds itself. The corporations, like omnivorous animals, are mobile. They move from tree to tree, taking shelter in the branches, preying upon both the trees which protect them, and the other members of the ecosystem, seeking always the most easily obtained resources. The burden of predation has now become so great that most of the trees in the wood appear to be suffering what foresters call ‘die-back’.”

  2. john says:

    The US is, in fact, essentially outsourcing it’s carbon emissions, just as many corporations who ballyhoo their emissions reductions here in the states have been doing for decades. Less here, but more there.

    We do the same with oil dependency. When economists say our economy is less dependent upon oil, they forget that we import a great deal of “embedded” oil in the products we get from China et al. and the oil costs are also embedded in those products. In essence, we have outsourced our oil dependency to developing nations, but we still pay.

    It is all fed by our US consumptive life-style, and the amzing thing is that since folks have studied these things, there’s been no correlation between consumptive levels and happiness, once the most basic needs of food and shelter have been met.

    Earl, I agree that states/nations are nevertheless the point of focus for controling GHG emissions, and the notion of charging a standard price for GHG for imports is elegant, and eminently workable.

    But it is also true that we can only move forward on solutions together.