Emissions from consumption may offset reported carbon emission reductions in industrialized countries

An increasing share of global  emissions is from the production of internationally traded goods and  services, according to a new study published today in the Proceedings of  the National Academy of Sciences. Due to current reporting practices,  this has allowed some countries to increase their carbon footprints  while reporting stabilized emissions.

If you buy a sweater or a  refrigerator, emissions from the production processes are allocated to  the producing country. In the consuming country these emissions remain  invisible. In this way, some countries can increase their consumption  (carbon footprint) while their officially reported emissions remain  stable.

An international team of researchers  has now compiled a trade-linked global database of carbon dioxide  emissions running from 1990 to 2008 and for 57 economic sectors in 113  countries. This dataset allows, for the first time, a detailed analysis  of the role of international trade in the development of emissions in  individual countries over time.

The production of traded goods and  services, the authors report, accounted for 20 percent of global  emissions in 1990 and this increased to 26 percent in 2008.

“A key explanation for this finding  is that increased imports to rich countries have led to increased  production and emissions in developing countries”, said Glen Peters at  the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo  (CICERO), lead author of the study.

“The consumption-driven emissions in  many developed countries, sometimes called the carbon footprint, rose  faster than the officially reported territorial emissions”.

“International trade has enabled much  needed economic development in emerging economies, but at the same  time, many rich countries have benefited as they increased consumption  without increasing their reported territorial emissions”, said Glen  Peters. According to the authors, only by shifting emissions to the  developing world industrialised countries are currently able to meet  their climate protection targets with comparatively little efforts  despite their growing consumption levels.

“Through their consumption most industrialised countries contributed  more to emission increases in developing countries than they cut  emissions at home”, said Jan Minx, one of the authors based at the  Departments Economics of Climate Change and Sustainable Engineering at  Technical University Berlin. In 2008, emission increases in developing  countries from industrialised countries’ consumption exceeded the  emission savings made in industrialised nations by five times.

Many developed countries have  reported stable emission levels, thanks in part to the accounting rules  established under the united Nations Framework Convention on Climate  Change that require countries to report only territorial emissions.

“In today’s accounting system  developed nations do not need to report emissions caused by their  consumption even if this contributes to global emissions growth. Our  findings suggests there is a need to additionally report and monitor  emissions transfers that occur through international trade”, said Glen  Peters. The study questions the sufficiency of the territorial  accounting principle in an international climate regime in which only  some regions have emission restrictions.

“This does not mean that we should  abandon regional rules for climate mitigation. Instead, the extension of  these rules is necessary”, explains Ottmar Edenhofer from the Potsdam  Institute for Climate Impact Research, who also leads the Department  Economics of Climate Change at Technical University Berlin, which is  co-financed by the Michael-Otto-Foundation. At present the international  climate regime is fragmented. “We need pathways to a global deal now”,  Edenhofer emphasises.

“Today,  developed countries have to report their CO2 emissions, but we consume a  lot of stuff that is produced in China and other developing countries.  Their CO2 emissions are helping support my consumption. This study shows  that consumption is increasingly depending on CO2 emissions in other  countries. If we want to be able to control emissions, we need to keep  tabs on emissions transfers that occur through international trade”,  comments Ken Caldeira from the Carnegie Institution for Science in the  United States. Caldeira authored a study on the issue in 2010  (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/02/23/0906974107.abstract).

The study “Growth in emission  transfers via international trade from 1990 to 2008” has been conducted  by researchers at the Center for International Climate and Environmental  Research – Oslo (CICERO), Technical University Berlin, Science and  Technology Policy Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, and Potsdam  Institute for Climate Impact Research.

“Growth in emission transfers via  international trade from 1990 to 2008,” by Glen P. Peters, Jan C. Minx,  Christopher L. Weber, and Ottmar Edenhofer, Proceedings of the National  Academy of Sciences (PNAS)

Link to study

MEDIA CONTACT: Glen P. Peters,  Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo,  Norway; tel: +4722858780; mon: +4792891638 e-mail: <glen.peters@cicero.uio.no>