Doing Our Dirty Work

China emits a lot of carbon, but it’s because they’re making all our stuff.

November 21, 2014

“The United States will be required to more steeply reduce our carbon emissions while China won’t have to reduce anything,” climate change-denying Senator James Inhofe said of last week’s historic U.S.-China emissions pact. Other critics have joined him in calling the agreement, which puts both nations on a path toward curtailing carbon pollution, fundamentally unfair.

China has its own gripes, though, and some of them are pretty persuasive. The United States and Europe are responsible for spewing out most of the extra carbon already in the atmosphere. Also, on a per capita basis, Americans are responsible for far more carbon (22.2 metric tons a person per year) than are the Chinese (7.8). Not exactly even-steven.

Photo: eyemage

But here’s the strongest complaint China could lodge against the West: We’re manufacturing all this crap because you want it.

Prevailing carbon accounting practices have allowed us to conveniently ignore this fact for a long time. But if we’re going to reduce carbon emissions—and do so in a fair way—we have to consider our imports as well as our domestic fossil fuel combustion.

The prevailing approach to calculating a country’s emissions is “production-based”: Carbon accountants tally up the nation’s fossil fuel consumption (measured in tons, gallons, or cubic feet), add in the amount of meat and waste produced, along with a few other factors, and—voilà—you have a country’s carbon footprint. China is, far and away, the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter under this system.

If we’re going to wave our arms about fairness, though, we have to acknowledge the problems with this calculation. Blaming China for its manufacturing-related CO2 emissions is a bit like blaming your local utility for letting you leave the lights on 24/7. If we didn’t buy all those electronics, couches, and plastic toys, China wouldn’t make and ship them.

Here’s an idea: Let’s recalculate emissions based on actual responsibility—the quantity of greenhouse gases each country causes to be emitted. This is called “consumption-based” accounting. When a country exports a widget, its production-related emissions are subtracted from the manufacturer’s ledger and added to the buyer’s emissions tally. This visual (produced using 2004 data) depicts the flow of carbon dioxide embedded in international trade.

Illustrated by: Davis & Caldeira, PNAS 2010

The thick black arrows flowing outward from China represent the greenhouse gases released in the production and export of all the stuff it sells to the United States, Europe, and Japan. That’s us hanging our CO2 on China.

China isn’t the only loser under the prevailing accounting system. All the methane emitted by Brazil and Argentina while they produce beef, pork, and chicken for export gets hung on the two South American countries. (The United States, which both produces and consumes a huge amount of meat, comes out roughly even in this instance.)

Illustrated by: Caro, Environ. Res. Lett. 2014

Exported goods account for 23 percent of global emissions, according to a 2010 study by Carnegie Institution researchers. So what happens when you look at consumption numbers? It puts China—whose exports are responsible for 1.2 gigatons more CO2 than its imports—within a gigaton of the United States, whose imports rack up .730 more gigatons than exports. As for Europe, imports to its biggest economies would represent nearly 50 percent of their emissions. It’s only a very selective view of the data that enables us to moan about fairness.

Switching to consumption-based accounting wouldn’t be without challenges, however. With exporters left out of the equation, there’d be nothing spurring them to keep their manufacturing emissions in check—a huge potential hurdle for buyer countries to overcome. The approach could also be a nightmare to implement, says Ken Caldeira a coauthor of the Carnegie Institution study. It’s exceedingly difficult to monitor the flow of materials and products into and out of a massive economy like China’s.

Still, we should keep an eye on these consumption numbers—especially as more nations commit to emissions caps. Under a purely production-based accounting system, a nation could fraudulently fulfill its promises by importing its most carbon-intensive products from countries that haven’t agreed to emissions limits. Experts call this trick “carbon leakage,” and it could become common as wealthy nations look for loopholes in their emissions commitments.

Arguments about who’s getting a square deal are easy to make and easy to refute. Here’s the thing, though, as climatologist Raymond T. Pierrehumbert pointed out in Slate: “The climate cares about CO2, not fairness.” 


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.