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.