When emissions are reported for the US or Canada, there is an accounting convention that restricts the total to emissions released within the borders of that jurisdiction. This means that Canada’s exports of tar sands oil are counted only to the extent that fossil fuels are used in the extraction and processing, not the combustion of the final product in the US.
In BC, this came up in a recent approval of a new natural gas processing facility in the northeast, which will add more than 2 megatonnes per year to BC’s GHG inventory, but another 16 Mt per year downstream when it is eventually combusted (see this post). If we counted those emissions (and other emissions associated with the extraction phase) it would make BC’s total emissions inventory about one-third higher. To put that in perspective, BC’s much-lauded carbon tax is only estimated to reduce emissions by 3 Mt per year after 2020 relative to business-as-usual growth.
A new study by Davis and Caldeira takes a consumption or lifecycle approach to emissions to see how much has been “outsourced” to countries like China who make the stuff we consume:
Over a third of the carbon dioxide emissions linked to good and services consumed in many European countries actually occurred elsewhere, the researchers found. In Switzerland and several other small countries, outsourced emissions exceeded the amount of carbon dioxide emitted within national borders.
The United States is both a major importer and a major exporter of emissions embodied in trade. The net result is that the U.S. outsources about 11% of total consumption-based emissions, primarily to the developing world.
Canada, according to the study, is a small net exporter of GHG emissions. No data for Canada are presented, unfortunately, as Canada does not crack the top 10 net exporters list. But there is some work from Statistics Canada from a few years ago that sheds some light on this. A study by Joe St. Lawrence found that in 2002 Canada exported 264 Mt of Co2 equivalent emissions, an amount that is about half of total GHGs produced domestically. In the same year, about 105 Mt of GHGs were attributable to Canadian consumption as embodied in imported goods. This means net GHG exports were 151 Mt, a figure that is hardly “small” – enough to be number five on the Davis and Caldeira list (differing methodologies make these incomparable).
These studies are useful in highlighting the challenges of developing a new framework for GHG mitigation on the world stage. Exemplary countries that appear to be making progress on the emissions front, like many in Europe, may in fact be better at outsourcing the emissions associated with their consumption. That said, Canada still ranks number five in consumption-related emissions, at 16.6 tonnes per person in 2004. Australia is slightly ahead (16.7) followed by Singapore (20.2), the US (22.0) and Luxembourg (34.7).
Another complexity is to look beyond just annual emissions. A deal-breaker issue in Copenhagen was the historical responsibility for GHG emissions, the fact that the advanced countries have been using the global commons “sink” to spur their economic growth for much longer than developing countries, who are now being asked to make similar reductions. I recommend a lecture Naomi Klein gave recently to a CCPA gala on the topic of climate debt, where she argues that emission reductions in rich countries are fundamentally a matter of justice from the perspective of poorer countries.
To give a sense of the magnitudes of historical emissions, the World Resources Institute has data on historical emissions (in this case, via the Guardian’s awesome data blog). The number one historical emitter, by far, is the US, with almost 30% of total emissions going back to 1900. Russia and China are next, each with just over 8% of the historical total. Canada ranks ninth, with responsibility for just over 2% of the total (a number consistent with is annual contribution).
If we were take the top 15 historical emitters (in descending order: US, Russia, China, Germany, UK, Japan, France, India, Canada, Ukraine, Poland, Italy, South Africa, Australia and Mexico), these countries account for 80% of total historical emissions. It makes for an interesting list because it is not exclusively rich countries. Part of this is due to population size: if we group the Western European countries together, they total more than 11% of the total.
It would be interesting to lump these two broad issues together: historical consumption-related emissions. For example, historical emissions show that China’s claim to be just another developing country that needs leeway to grow its emissions is a sham, but on the other hand the Davis and Caldeira study finds that China is also the number one net exporter of emissions by a large margin, with 22.5% of its annual emissions dedicated to exports (this number may be even higher now, as the study data is for 2004).
Finally, this all highlights the need to account for trade flows in accounting and in policy responses. Domestic policies to reduce emissions may be ostensibly successful, but may only encourage the outsourcing of emissions, with little change from a consumption perspective (or worse, larger emissions if Chinese power is from coal and production practices are more inefficient). Carbon tariffs, for example, would have to be considered alongside any carbon tax to level the playing field.
- Absolving our Carbon Sins: the Case of the Pacific Carbon Trust (April 2nd, 2013)
- Carbon bubbles and fossil fuel divestment (March 26th, 2013)
- GHG Cap & Trade (January 21st, 2013)
- What’s next for BC’s carbon tax? (January 14th, 2013)
- Marc’s Letter from 2040 (December 14th, 2012)