Goods bought in the richest parts of the world effectively export CO2 emissions to poorer countries, a factor overlooked by governments’ climate change strategies. That’s the message coming from research in the news this month performed by two separate groups of researchers, one in the US and one in Norway. The Norway-based team of Edgar Hertwich and colleague Glen Peters in particular note that the carbon footprint continues to grow steadily in parallel with how much consumers spend. “There is no flattening out, no indication that the carbon footprint stabilizes at some point,” they write. Consequently, as nations continue to strive to raise their wealth, we might expect their carbon footprint to grow along with it. “This is, I’m afraid, bad news,” Peters and Hertwich say. “We cannot expect that emissions are reduced as a part of normal development.”
Hertwich and Peters last week won an award for the “Best Policy Paper” for 2009 from the journal Environmental Science and Technology that published their work. They looked at all countries’ carbon footprint in 2001, going further than just looking at CO2 produced within their borders to also assess the impact of international trade for the first time. Their results have been made into a website, called “Carbon Footprint of Nations”, which shows how emissions vary with consumption. Greenhouse gas emissions rise about 70% with each doubling of consumer spending, with more emissions coming from transport and consumer goods and less from food.
“Where CO2 emissions occur doesn’t matter to the climate system,” Davis says. “Effective policy must have global scope. To the extent that constraints on developing countries’ emissions are the major impediment to effective international climate policy, allocating responsibility for some portion of these emissions to final consumers elsewhere may represent an opportunity for compromise.”
Hertwich and Peters suggest that improving production efficiency and using more renewable energy when manufacturing goods would also be useful. Nevertheless, they still seem uncertain that this will achieve enough. “If we really want to reduce climate change, it seems like the consumption of goods needs to be limited,” they write. This would not mean a complete halt, however, as the scientists note that consumption by rich households in both developing and industrialised nations is needed.