climate change globalisation social justice

EU emissions – decoupling or outsourcing?

Over the couple of decades, the EU’s carbon emissions have fallen, with some countries reporting fairly significant declines. This is what was hoped for, and indeed promised, through the Kyoto Agreement. As the world meets again to try to come to a new international climate agreement, the EU will be keen to champion its successes.

But there is a problem here. The 90s and 00s were also the decades of globalisation, when industry moved South to take advantage of lower wages. The heaviest and most polluting industries were particularly likely to move, escaping tightening pollution regulations.

Much of what Europe consumes has been produced overseas, and thus the carbon emissions have occurred elsewhere. But they are ultimately EU emissions, as we are responsible for them. So what happens if you factor in the ‘embedded’ emissions of goods imported into EU? (And to be fair, remove the embedded emissions of things exported).


As this graph from the Footprint Network shows, once embedded emissions are included, the EU’s emissions have been rising, not falling. They dropped with the recession, and then starting rising again. As they point out, those countries that look at first glance to have the lowest emissions – like Sweden or Switzerland – are quite likely to have high embedded emissions.

You can probably guess where production is outsourced to, but previous research by the Carnegie Institution has mapped emissions from net exporters to net importers.

emissions imports

In a globalised world, we need to ensure that international agreements understand emissions in their global context, and include embedded emissions in their accounting. Without the full picture, developed countries with service-based economies can simply launder their emissions through developing countries.


  1. Thanks for this post, it’s something I’ve often wondered about. I was sure that including embedded emissions would show our total emissions to be rising, not falling. But it was just an assumption, I didn’t have the data. So thanks for posting this graph.

    I think it’s ridiculous that embedded emissions aren’t counted in national climate mitigation stats. It means European governments can pat themselves on the back and then turn around and reprimand places like China for having high emissions – when they’re making our stuff! To be honest, it seems too stupid to be an honest mistake. Call me cynical, but it seems like Western governments just want to carry on with the neo-colonial trend of blaming developing countries for environmental problems they aren’t responsible for.

    Climate change is a global problem, and needs to be managed globally. The UN does seem to get that to an extent, with all our international summits and hoped-for international agreements. But there needs to be something in place to stop us just moving emissions around the globe and not actually reducing them on the whole. Hopefully this will be taken into account in New York next week and in Paris 2015.

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