Outsourcing our carbon footprint: how ‘our buying fuels their emissions’

“Considering only the production-based emissions of countries is not enough to address the climate crisis.”

“There is a degree of delusion about emissions cuts in developed nations. They are not really cuts at all if countries are simply buying in products they used to manufacture. We really need all countries to be developing and publishing the full extent of their emissions, whether they are produced domestically or outsourced through traded goods.”

About half of Britain’s true carbon footprint is made up of these sources.

.

A comment from a correspondent points out what we seem to be missing:

Apparently China is building 43 new coal-fired power plants and will soon be responsible for more than a third of global carbon emissions, much of the discussion is futile. While The UK is now responsible for less than one per cent of global carbon emissions. Our carbon emissions have fallen faster than any other nation in the G20. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do all we can but it looks like our efforts won’t make much difference … unless we stop routinely buying from abroad where our buying fuels their emissions!

Climate Change: China Plans 43 New Coal-Fired Power Plants | Time

China pledges to stop building new coal energy plants abroad – BBC News

So, let’s look at this point that ‘our buying fuels their emissions ‘:

There is ’embodied carbon’ in buildings:

“The greenest building is the building that is already built.”[7]
The reason that existing buildings are greener than new buildings is that the amount of carbon emissions which occurs during construction of a building is so large in comparison to the annual operating emissions of the building, especially as operations become more energy efficient.[8][9] Embodied carbon is estimated to count for 11% of global carbon emissions and 75% of a building’s emissions over its entire lifecycle.[10]

Embedded emissions – Wikipedia

Decarbonising construction – Vision Group for Sidmouth

RetroFirst: “the greenest building is the one that already exists” – Vision Group for Sidmouth

And then there are those carbon emissions embedded in what we produce:

Greenhouse gas inventory – Wikipedia

And that includes New Zealand lamb – which creates many ‘food miles’ when exported to the UK, and while the lamb itself is produced using less carbon, importing the lamb is also importing someone else’s carbon emissions:

Climate explained: why countries don’t count emissions from goods they import

It can be argued that if a country can produce these goods more efficiently (with lower emissions) than other countries, this may be the preferred situation. This is the case for New Zealand’s agricultural production. Research shows New Zealand’s pasture-fed agricultural systems are efficient in producing meat and dairy products – per kilogram of meat or litre of milk, New Zealand emits less than many other countries.
Although most of these products are exported, the emissions from their production count towards New Zealand’s greenhouse gas inventory. In fact, almost half of New Zealand’s emissions in 2018 came from agriculture, and just under three-quarters of these agricultural emissions were methane from cows and sheep.
From a global perspective, climate policy needs to recognise the advantage of producing goods where they can be made with lower emissions. Otherwise there is a risk industries relocate to other (typically less developed) countries with less stringent climate change regulations, and global greenhouse gas emissions rise as a result. This is known as “carbon leakage”.Patterns of consumption
But there is an important corollary to all of this: considering only the production-based emissions of countries is not enough to address the climate crisis. Even if New Zealand can produce agricultural goods more efficiently than other countries, should these be produced at the current volume – or at all?
Ultimately we need to consider patterns of consumption and assess whether they are in line with a sustainable future for the world.
In practical terms, this means that we should be accounting for both consumption and production-based emissions. An accounting system based on consumption would assess greenhouse gases emitted in the production of goods and services consumed by New Zealanders. This includes imported goods as well as everything that is produced and then consumed in New Zealand – and it excludes exported goods and services.
Two New Zealand studies (for 2011 and 2012) show the biggest contribution to consumption-based emissions comes from three sectors: construction, food and beverages, and education and health services. For food and beverages, animal protein and processed meat contributes 35% of the emissions associated with an average adult New Zealand diet.
But accounting for emissions from consumption comes with challenges. It requires tracing the point of origin of imported products, often in countries with less stringent emission inventories. There are two types of modelling we can use to support consumption-based analysis. Life cycle assessment starts with a product – say an apple or packet of milk powder – and tracks the entire supply chain back through the retail, distribution and agricultural production. Other models integrate environmental and economic data across multiple regions.
Such data and the insights we glean from both production and consumption accounting could guide future climate policies to enable New Zealand to reduce emissions both within the country and internationally.

Climate explained: why countries don’t count emissions from goods they import

This is the discussion being had – namely, how to account for both carbon emissions produced and carbon emissions consumed:

How do CO2 emissions compare when we adjust for trade? – Our World in Data

It is quite revealing, if not rather embarrassing – especially as this has been known for some time, as this BBC report from 2011 shows:

Carbon emissions ‘hidden’ in imported goods revealed

The extent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions “hidden” in imported goods is growing, according to two studies. Official data do not include emissions from making imported goods but both sets of researchers say they should.
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports 26% of global emissions come from producing goods for trade. The Carbon Trust found such “embedded” CO2 could negate domestic carbon cuts planned in the UK up to 2025.
Researchers want all nations to publish their data on embedded emissions. Glen Peters of research group Cicero, lead authors of the PNAS report, told BBC News: “There is a degree of delusion about emissions cuts in developed nations. They are not really cuts at all if countries are simply buying in products they used to manufacture. We really need all countries to be developing and publishing the full extent of their emissions, whether they are produced domestically or outsourced through traded goods.”
The issue of embedded (or outsourced) carbon emissions has been recognised for several years, and the methodology to track emissions pathways is developing.

Carbon emissions ‘hidden’ in imported goods revealed – BBC News

Here’s a study from last year, as reported by the Guardian:

Half UK’s true carbon footprint created abroad, research finds
Half of real carbon footprint comes from ‘invisible’ cost of goods made overseas – study

The government is committed to cutting the UK’s carbon output to net zero by 2050, and emissions have been falling for the past three decades. But that does not take into account the “invisible” side of Britain’s carbon footprint, which comes from international travel and the carbon produced overseas to make goods that are used here.
About half of Britain’s true carbon footprint is made up of these sources, according to a report from the conservation charity WWF…The carbon associated with the manufacture of imported goods appears in the carbon accounts of the manufacturing country. However, some countries have less stringent carbon targets than others, and developing countries may struggle to use low-carbon methods as they pursue economic growth. International aviation is not covered by countries’ national carbon targets, under the UN climate talks and the Paris agreement.
“If all other countries were going for net zero too, then this [invisible carbon footprint] wouldn’t be a problem,” said the author of the report, John Barrett, a professor of energy and climate policy at the University of Leeds. “The UK should be showing leadership.”
Policies to ensure that goods allowed to be imported had a lower carbon footprint – such as requirements on the efficiency, repairability and recycling of electric and electronic goods – could have a major impact on the invisible side of Britain’s carbon footprint, he added. Exporters would have an incentive to reduce their carbon footprint and the emissions associated with using their goods.
The question of how to account for the emissions associated with imports is a vexed and polarising one, with some green campaigners arguing that developed countries should accept responsibility for emissions generated overseas, while other economists point out that the manufacturing countries have been paid for the goods.

Half UK’s true carbon footprint created abroad, research finds | Green politics | The Guardian

It is indeed a very ‘vexed’ question:

What is a carbon border tax and what does it mean for trade? | World Economic Forum

With the Center for American Progress questioning proposals from the EU to tax imported embedded carbon:

What the European Union’s Proposed Trade Tax on Carbon Means for the United States – Center for American Progress

   
© Vision Group for Sidmouth 2005-2022