How the developed world is hiding its growing emissions

By Martin Leggett - 26 Apr 2011 16:17:1 GMT
How the developed world is hiding its growing emissions

The headline story on the fight against global-warming generating emissions has looked pretty good for the developed world. The world's most advanced economies have seen the levels at which they pump out greenhouse gases flat-line - or even fall - in recent years.

The US has had static rates of emissions of CO2 for much of the last decade; the 2008-9 recession even helped push its greenhouse gas emissions down in 2009. In the UK, although last year's cold weather showed how badly equipped the country's homes are, for heating themselves efficiently, CO2 emissions are still down 16% off of their peak in 1991

So does that mean the economic rich-club can feel quietly confident that it is on track to meet the targets promised in Kyoto - whilst smugly berating the developing world as the new 'dirty men' of global warming? Not according to a new report in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Science (PNAS). It has looked into the issue of 'emissions transfers', and at the way that emissions are counted by the new 'carbon accountants'.

At the moment, countries report their greenhouse gas emissions based on what emissions are actually thrown out within their jurisdiction. That makes the accounting of carbon-equivalent emissions a little easier to do, and is the basis of all the targets and commitments in the Kyoto Protocol.

The problem is that a country that is recklessly consuming products - whose production is shifted to another nation, with cheaper labor - can also claim massive reductions in greenhouse emissions. The smokestacks are lying in someone else's country now. But the consumers are still the ones benefiting from the emissions being made in the producer's country. In effect the richer nation has outsourced not just the labor, but its greenhouse gas emissions too, hiding them away from international scrutiny.

It was to try and put numbers on the size of this effect that the report's authors tried to work out emissions using a new carbon-accounting standard - allotting emissions to those who ultimately make use of products and services. What they found was that over the period that the developed world saw its emissions growth slow and stop, the rate of growth of emissions from international trade has grown hugely. By 2008, 1.6 Gigatonnes of CO2 emissions were being exported, which more than offset the reduced emissions from developed countries committed to Kyoto.

This helps to explain why emissions have carried on rising globally. The report concludes that that half-way house solutions like Kyoto - which only part of the world signed up to - will inevitably fail to curb greenhouse gas emissions. There needs to be a a single global agreement, that covers changes in international trade with their hidden emissions. But with Cancun looking like something less than even the half-way house of Kyoto, it may well be that the world will be limping on with a new sticking-plaster climate change solution, where the carbon balance-sheet remains murky.