climate change globalisation

Carbon importers and exporters

When nations calculate their carbon emissions, the internationally agreed method is to count domestic emissions. That means you only count up greenhouse gas emissions that occur within your geographical boundaries. Certain things get left out when you do this, such as aviation and shipping. Imports and exports also complicate the picture.

The UK runs a trade deficit. We import a lot of stuff from elsewhere, and everytime you import something you leave the carbon emissions for making it on somebody else’s carbon account. If I buy a new laptop, the emissions to manufacture it will be attributed to China, for example.

This broader set of emissions is called ‘consumption emissions’, and in the UK they run considerably higher than our official national accounts – the latest figures are 42% higher. To get a true picture of our impact on the planet, we need to add those imports on.

China, meanwhile, runs a trade surplus and could legitimately discount around 10% of its emissions as exports.

This is something to bear in mind when talking about who is most responsible for climate change. The most commonly used national emissions profiles don’t tell the whole story.

Here is a map of carbon exporters and importers from DW.com. (More detailed version here if you want to explore the data)

A couple of things to note from this map. One is that in low income countries, carbon footprints are so low that imports rather distort the picture. Madagascar, for example, imports emissions equivalent to almost 30% of its domestic emissions. This isn’t because they import masses of stuff, but because the nation’s carbon footprint is so small.

Comparing blue and yellow countries, it’s clear that some of the countries that look like they are making the least progress on their emissions – including China, Russia and Australia – are CO2 exporters. That doesn’t get them off the hook in any way, especially if those exports include vast quantities of fossil fuels, but it does help to explain why places like South Africa or Kazakhstan have such high footprints.

Conversely, some of those that look like they’re doing okay on reducing emissions may be undercounting. With the exception of the Netherlands, Western Europe is a significant carbon importer. In many of these countries, imported emissions are increasing year on year. Where this is happening, countries may be reducing their emissions by displacing them rather than eliminating them. There is little to celebrate about that, because it means that total global emissions won’t have fallen and little actual difference is being made to the climate crisis.

In short, the way the international community has chosen to calculate emissions benefits certain nations over others. It allows countries to offshore their emissions and whitewash the statistics. For a full picture of who is driving climate change, consumption emissions need to be considered alongside domestic emissions.

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