Any success that developed countries may seem to be having in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions is being undermined by goods that they import from developing countries. That’s according to a team of scientists who’ve conducted the first study into the link between international trade and emissions over an extended time period. Glen Peters from the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, in Oslo, Norway, explained that some countries appear to have stabilised their emissions. However, that’s only if you look exclusively at greenhouse gases produced within their borders. “We find that the emissions have generally increased over time if we consider the emissions from the products consumed in a country,” he said. “It is important for countries to acknowledge the issue and regularly estimate these emissions so that we can track progress.”
Together with scientists based in Germany and the US, Peters tracked the greenhouse gas emissions arising when one country makes a product that is consumed in another. “For example, an emission occurs in China to produce a car which is purchased and used in Europe,” Peters said. They wanted to know whether this might be affecting countries that had cut greenhouse gas production under the Kyoto Protocol. That treaty separated more developed nations from less developed with 37 developed countries committed to overall emissions cuts, and the remainder left unregulated. “If countries have reduced emissions while at the same time increasing emission transfers from countries without emissions commitments, there may be a sense that we are meeting our climate objectives, when in fact we are not,” Peters said.
Broadening the CO2 view
While studies on the amount of emissions produced when manufacturing goods, or “embodied emissions”, transferred between countries had been done before, they focused on individual years. A longer study had not yet been done, because it means processing large amounts of information. Peters and his colleagues tackled the challenge by separating out exported and imported emissions from data collected by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee. In a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA paper published on Monday, they describe creating detailed data sets for 1997, 2001, and 2004 that established the economic relationships governing these emission transfers. Then, inputting gross domestic product and trade data from 1990-2008 provided their figures on what proportion of emissions had been transferred through trade.
They found that emissions from producing traded goods and services increased from 4.3 billion tonnes of CO2 in 1990 to 7.8 billion in 2008, an increase from one-fifth to one-quarter of global emissions. Net emission transfers through international trade from developing to developed countries increased from 400 million to 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 over this period. “From a consumption perspective countries with commitments have simply – unintentionally – shifted emissions to countries without emissions commitments, which offsets any gains countries have made towards the Kyoto Protocol objectives,” Peters explained.
More traded goods are being made and consumed, which is driving the greater international trade that leads to these emissions transfers, Peters added. “There are also structural changes in trade which means that products which were once produced in countries with a low emission intensity like Europe are now produced in countries with a high emission intensity like China,” he said. To tackle the impact of international trade on emissions, Peters hopes that international emission control agreements can be broadened to include more countries. He also thinks that negotiations should use information both from emissions directly produced by a country, and the emissions generated by the goods and services it consumes. “Including both, in addition to striving for greater country coverage in emission reductions, may bring a climate agreement that is more effective at reducing global emissions,” the scientist said.