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U.S. carbon dioxide emissions growth during Bush years 300% higher than official estimates

By Joe Romm  

"U.S. carbon dioxide emissions growth during Bush years 300% higher than official estimates"

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[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.]

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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:

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Figure 1

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:

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Figure 2

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:

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Figure 3

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?

Methodology

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.

Sources:

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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16 Responses to U.S. carbon dioxide emissions growth during Bush years 300% higher than official estimates

  1. Rick says:

    so then – an end to consumerism seems to be the only answer. We stop buying stuff leading to major unemployment and poverty which I suppose could be partially off set by green energy . … But still – I think we can forget the idea that such a revolution would be painless. It will be awful.

  2. Modesty says:

    I believe the terminology above:

    “In words, Figure 1 says that the U.S. exported over a billion metric tons of CO2 to the rest of the world in 2006″

    is standard–ie the nation that does the outsourcing and importing is the nation doing the emissions exporting. In the case of traditional, local pollutants, this is very clear.

    However, the text under (the second instance of) figure 1, while understandable, is likely to lead to confusion, even with the scare quotes:

    “Figure 1 shows the 15 nations who “export” the most CO2 to the United States in goods and services that the U.S. use as part of our economy. 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.”

    As this post is important, I would consider rewording the passage immediately above, for instance as follows:

    “Figure 1 shows the 15 nations whose exports to the U.S. result in the most CO2 emissions. 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: the CO2 associated with goods imported from other nations to the U.S. minus the CO2 associated with the goods the U.S. exports to them, as determined by the nations’ official carbon intensity.

    I would edit the text under the first instance of figure 1, as well.

    [JR: Good points. I have tried to edit for clarity.]

  3. Barry says:

    Great post! I’ve seen numbers like this before concerning China’s emissions being in part from exported industries from EU and NA. But great to have it so clear and quantified.

    Also, Rick, reducing fossil fuels doesn’t necessarily mean “awful”.

    The vast majority of humanity today lives carbon-sustainable lives. Just about every one of our ancestors did as well…including kings and queens. Plenty of joy, happiness and “good life” in the human condition without gobs of fossil fuel dumped into everything we do.

    What needs to be limited now is “fossil fueled” luxury. If we want luxury we need to create it in low-carbon manner.

    That’s what my family has been doing for last few years. I can say from experience that we are still supporting the economy, still living the good life and yet have cut our carbon footprint dramatically.

    And believe it or not it actually feels great to be ridding our lives of fossil fuels even where it cuts into our unlimited choices a bit.

  4. Greg Robie says:

    My recollection of the figures President Bush used in one of his early speeches (like back in 2000) on the economy, and how it was “greening,” was an early iteration of this data. He claimed, truthfully, that on a GDP per capita basis the US was producing 15% less CO2 than a decade earlier. This was true because using that metric, the credit for being green was allocated to the consumer nation while the charge for the CO2 the products required to be manufactured was made against the nation where that manufacturing had been outsourced and the natural resourses exploited. Given that the profitability of this outsourcing and exploiatation was a major factor inthe growth of the GDP, a 20% increase in CO2 production in the US could be spun, using this doublespeak, to be a decrease. Somehow this was an answer to the commitment made in Rio at the Earth Summit in 1992 to reduce CO2 emission to 1990 levels by 2000. This argument was a good enough for doing nothing to proclaimed as success.

    The Asian Brown Cloud was created and grew while Americans were told to see this–if they were even aware of it–as someone else’s responsibility and problem.

  5. David says:

    So what were the “real” emissions of the Kyoto countries, and once those are counted, how are they doing in meeting their Kyoto targets?

  6. David B. Benson says:

    David — Terribly.

  7. Gail says:

    To Rick Who Says:
    “January 22nd, 2009 at 2:56 pm
    so then – an end to consumerism seems to be the only answer. We stop buying stuff leading to major unemployment and poverty which I suppose could be partially off set by green energy . … But still – I think we can forget the idea that such a revolution would be painless. It will be awful.”

    What you are forgetting is what will happen if we DON’T lower emissions. Rising seas, billions of people displaced, wars over scarce resources like water, intolerable temperatures, and mass extinction. I hope we can collectively come to an understanding that life doesn’t have to be fulfilling by consuming – and disposing – of more and more stuff.

  8. paulm says:

    Make love, not CO2!

  9. Maarten says:

    CO2 intensity, measured in CO2 per unit of GDP, has been deflated by the asset bubbles, so it’s quite spurious an argument anyway: It will rise again, when the overpriced asset values are sinking, as they do now. The discussion about CO2 intensity seems to have been invented to distract from rising CO2 emissions, which is the only yardstick that actually matters for the climate.

  10. Bob Wright says:

    I miss my offshored emissions (manufacturing job)!

    This is great information and certainly helps point the way forward. Improved energy conservation, more energy efficient production methods, GHG free energy sources, a solution to health care insurance, and some sort of protection for industries that invest in green technologies will bring some of these jobs back and reduce global emissions.

  11. Saint says:

    Joe: I see you can’t let go and still never miss an opportunity to slam Bush, but this is a bit much, even by your own low standards.

    There are a least two serious methodological issues with the Angliss analysis. First, the economic value attributed to the imports is missing from the U.S. intensity calculation. If we’re responsible for the emissions, we’re responsible for the economic value associated with them.

    Second, the import and export trade figures are in current dollars. The EIA international intensity numbers are calculated using real (2000) dollars. Pegging the import and export dollar amounts to 2000 makes a significant difference. When you convert the import/export trade figures to 2000 dollars, the amount of CO2 “outsourced” from the U.S. winds up at about 12% in 2006.

    A third issue is whether to use the EIA intensity figures based on market exchange rates (what Angliss used) or purchasing power parity. If you use EIA’s international intensity figures based on PPP instead of MER, the amount of CO2 outsourced falls to just 7% in 2006. Ho-hum.

    Putting everything on an equal footing, total (or “actual,” if you prefer) U.S. CO2 emissions grew 11%-12% in the first six years of the Clinton-Gore era vs. 2%-3% in the first six years of the Bush-Cheney era. Moreover, the rate at which emissions were outsourced was greater under Clinton-Gore, too. Hmmmm.

    And whether using the MER or PPP data, when you put the import/export figures into constant dollars and include in the intensity calculation the economic activity attributed to net imports, the “actual” CO2 intensity of the U.S. economy does not deteriorate after 2001, but continues to improve.

    I also see you linked to your post on the recent EIA greenhouse gas numbers, where you take Bush to task for a 1.4% increase in emissions in 2007. When your crowd was in charge, Joe, annual U.S. GHG emissions exceeded 1.4% growth in 1993, 1994, 1996, and 2000 (1996 and 2000 registered increases of 2.6%!). Indeed, the AVERAGE annual growth over the eight years of the Clinton-Gore Administration was over 1.4%! For Bush-Cheney? Less than 0.8%.

    I don’t mind you taking potshots at Bush, and yes, you can slice and dice these data in many different ways, but maybe you should be a bit more honest about the performance of the Administration for which you toiled. The simple fact is, Joe, when you look at NET emissions, ALL of the growth in the U.S. from 1990 to 2008 happened on Clinton-Gore’s watch. A little humility might not go amiss.

  12. Joe says:

    Gimme a break.

    Clinton Gore had very low energy prices, high economic growth, and a GOP Congress for most of the years that sharply cut or zeroed out every major program we tried to pass to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    I also hardly think the counting should start until about 2 years in to an Administration.

    And blaming them for 1990 to 2008 is just laughable.

    But who are obviously not a regular reader of this blog or you would know that I don’t care if anyone wants to take potshots at Clinton-Gore.

    Back in the 1990s you had to believe scientists in order to understand the urgent need to take action on global warming. In the 2000s, the observed evidence became utterly overwhelming, so there is no excuse for what Bush and Cheney did.

  13. Saint,

    I’m looking into your point about the real vs. current dollars, and I’m not convinced yet that you’re correct. You are correct about market vs. PPP rate, since the PPP rate cuts EIA’s carbon intensity by about a factor of 2.

    And as I said at S&R, I appreciate that you found an error in my GDP calculations. However, as I also said, the change to the numbers is small, given that 2006 net imports was just over 1 trillion, or less than 10%. I’ll be posting updated graphs at S&R in the next day or so, after I verify or disprove your claim about real vs. current dollars.

  14. Well, I’ve looked into your concerns and run a correction and update at S&R, Saint. However, my corrected calculations show a drop in offshored carbon emissions from 20.7% to 18.3%, not the 12% you claim. And when I ran the PPP exchange rate numbers as well, I found that the US still offshored 10% of its CO2 emissions.

    So while I’ll admit that I made a couple of errors, the total error was a reduction in CO2 emissions offshored of 2.4%. Hardly enough to break my conclusions, or Joe’s for that matter.

  15. A D Bryan says:

    I don’t understand the statement “….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.”

    Wouldn’t it be the reverse? For equal amounts of labor, wouldn’t a higher price of goods produce a LOWER the carbon intensity?

  16. K L Reddington says:

    In 1,000 dollars worth of dell computors there are I am told 600 border crossings. A few years ago dell’s largest OEM supplier was IBM. There is a lot of shipping.