[My guest blogger today is Brian Angliss, an electrical engineer who blogs at Scholars and Rogues, where this terrific post was first published. What his analysis shows is that because of the exploding trade deficit during the Bush Presidency, the U.S. outsourced CO2 emissions growth of more than 700 million metric tons (see figure below) — compared to reported growth of some 200 million metric tons (see here). So much for conservatives claims of Bush’s leadership in slowing emissions.]
Figure 1: The 15 nations to whom the U.S. outsourced the most CO2 embodied as a result of the net imports of goods and services from them. Click to enlarge. Total U.S. CO2 emissions are about 6,000 millio metric tons (see here).
The role of the United States in climate disruption is far greater than most people realize. Not only does the U.S. emit more carbon dioxide (CO2) than any other nation besides China, not only does the U.S. have one the highest per-capita emissions in the world, but the U.S. economy also accounts for a massive amount of emissions released by the rest of the world too. S&R has investigated just how much CO2 the United States economy is actually responsible for, and the results suggest the real emissions are 20% greater than official estimates.
Every product and service requires energy, and thus carbon. Commercial agriculture requires petroleum or natural gas-based fertilizers and diesel fuel for planting and harvesting. Manufacturing requires energy to extract raw materials, petroleum to transport those materials to a factory, energy to convert those materials into products, and yet more petroleum to transport the products to end users. Even services like housecleaning or website hosting have an energy cost, the former in the creation of the chemicals and electric cleaning tools and the latter for the server (a product with its associated energy cost of creation), the electricity used to run the computer, and the energy consumed in constructing the computer center that houses the server have energy costs. And in all cases, the energy cost to create the product or service creates carbon emissions.
Given this, the amount of CO2 that a product or service indirectly emits in its creation, transport, and use can be estimated. And by extension the total amount of CO2 produced by the combined products and services (gross domestic product, or GDP) of a nation can also be estimated. When the total CO2 produced by a country by the country’s GDP, the amount of carbon emitted per unit of economic production can be determined. This is called “carbon intensity.”
The carbon intensity of the United States in 2006 was 0.52 metric tons of CO2 emitted per thousand dollars (indexed for inflation to the value of the dollar in 2000). For comparison, the carbon intensity of Iceland in 2006 was 0.31 metric tons of CO2 emitted per thousand dollars, and the carbon intensity of Russia was 4.54 metric tons of CO2 emitted per thousand dollars.
The fact that carbon intensity varies from country to country is a function of the country’s energy mix and overall productivity – more coal or oil burned for electricity or heating produces higher carbon intensity, and lots of manual labor producing valuable products produces a higher carbon intensity too. Large amounts of manual labor producing inexpensive products produces an extremely low carbon intensity, as witnessed by the very low carbon intensity of 0.10 metric tons of CO2 emitted per thousand dollars from Cambodia.
From carbon intensity, the amount of CO2 produced in the process of creating the goods and services that the U.S. exports – and that other countries export to us – can be estimated as well. The result is the following graph:
In essence, anything the U.S buys that says “Made in China” is part of the U.S. economy, and so the carbon emitted in the creation of that product belongs to the U.S. economy as much as the carbon emitted in manufacturing a Ford Focus in Detroit. Figure 1 represents the balance of carbon, imported CO2 from other nations to the U.S. minus the CO2 the U.S. exports to them, as determined from the nations’ carbon intensity. It’s clear from the figure that China contributes by far the most CO2 to U.S. carbon emissions.
In words, Figure 1 says that the U.S.
exported outsourced over a billion metric tons of CO2 to the rest of the world in 2006.
Figure 2 below illustrates data in a similar fashion, but as a percentage of total U.S. carbon emissions:
In this case, U.S.-generated emissions as a percentage of total emissions attributable to the U.S. economy have fallen steadily since 1985, from a high of 97.8% to 79.3%. This means that the U.S. economy has offshored 20.7% of our CO2 emissions to the rest of the world at the same time the United States has offshored production, services, and jobs.
If the U.S. is no longer generating a significant amount of our CO2 emissions, that means that the official carbon intensity of the Untied States (0.52 metric tons per thousand dollars) is actually much higher. And if this is the case, that means the reduction in carbon intensity that many people are pleased about is at least partly an illusion. Figure 3 below illustrates how much an illusion the regular improvements in U.S. carbon intensity actually is:
Figure 3 shows an unpleasant fact – as U.S. businesses have offshored more and more of the U.S. economy’s CO2 emissions to parts of the world where the carbon intensity is higher but labor is cheaper, the economy’s real carbon intensity has actually worsened since it hit it’s all-time low in 2001.
These figures illustrate a vitally important conclusion – the U.S. economy demands a huge amount of CO2 emissions beyond it’s borders. The U.S. has essentially offshored its GHG emission problem to the rest of the world, turning their economies into dumping grounds for our own air pollution. Yes, they’ve been paid well for it in U.S. dollars that helped raise the standards of living in the affected countries. But this also means the U.S. has a responsibility to help those countries clean their dirty energy houses.
After all, wouldn’t you want your neighbor to help rake up all the leaves he blew from his yard into yours?
S&R acquired the US GDP data, carbon intensity data related to energy production and gas flaring, and U.S. imports and exports from the data repositories listed below in sources and then performed the calculations that resulted in the graphs above. The Excel file of these calculations is available here (zipped Excel file) for anyone wishing to verify the calculations.
The EIA data on carbon intensity is only from the consumption of fossil fuels and flaring of gas – it does not include agricultural emissions, for example. In addition, the calculations are for carbon dioxide alone, excluding methane, ozone, HCFCs and other long lived greenhouse gases.
This analysis assumes that all units of production for import and export are equivalent in terms of CO2 emissions, while this is certainly untrue. However, given the large variety of imports and exports, and thus a large variety of CO2 emission profiles, S&R believes that this assumption is reasonable.
The estimates of imported (and exported) CO2 are equal the carbon intensity multiplied by the value of the imports, with the net amount of CO2 generated by other nations on behalf of the U.S. defined as the CO2 imports minus the exports.
Finally, all nations have data from 1992 until 2006, but only major trading partners have data from 1985 until 2006. This produces an error in the data from 1985 to 1992. Given that over 90% of all emissions are via major trading parters such as China and Canada, this error is believed to be relatively small.
US GDP information (Excel file)
Energy related carbon intensity (Excel file)
Data on trade for all countries back to 1992, major trading partners back to 1985 (zipped Excel file)
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