CO2 targets met by outsourcing are not really met

A study by a team of US and Chinese researchers reminds how the high standard of living enjoyed by people in the richest countries often comes at the expense of  CO2 emissions produced with low efficiency technologies in developing countries. Not only can this happen between developed and developing countries but it can also occur between more well to do and less well to do regions within the same country. The problem arises because we measure greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions at the emitting location rather than at the point where the manufactured goods are used. If we chose to measure emissions at the point where the manufactured or produced goods are used, the responsibility of developed nations in the US, Canada, and western Europe for global greenhouse gas emissions would be seen to be much higher than is currently reported.

The study in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that 57% of China’s GHG emissions are related to goods that are consumed outside of the province where they are produced. China has a target to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by 17% from 2010 levels by 2015, with regional efforts ranging from a 10% reduction of carbon intensity in the less developed west and 19% reduction in east coast provinces. The regions that produce the most emissions and use the least advanced technologies have less stringent intensity targets than the more affluent and technologically east coast regions. The authors suggest that, in addition to interprovincial emissions trading, progress against emissions targets could be evaluated not only by “production-based” inventories of where emissions occur, but also by “consumption-based” inventories that allocate emissions to the province where products are ultimately consumed.

This thinking is not new. Some have even suggested that the US should take responsibility for that part of Canada’s oil sands emissions that arise from production of oil consumed in the US. Of course, a similar approach would need to be applied on a global scale if the unfairness of the present production-focused quantification of emissions is to be overcome. The paper presents a methodology that may be appropriate for this.

The study report is available at

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