Developed world ‘outsourcing’ carbon emissions

Europe is effectively outsourcing a third of its carbon emissions overseas, according to a new study.

 Scientists at the Carnegie Institution have found that over a third of carbon dioxide emissions associated with the consumption of goods and services in many developed countries are actually emitted outside their borders.

Some countries, such as Switzerland, ‘outsource’ over half of their carbon dioxide emissions.

About 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide are consumed in the US per person but produced somewhere else. For Europeans, the figure can exceed four tons. Most of this is outsourced to developing countries, especially China, says the team.

“Instead of looking at carbon dioxide emissions only in terms of what is released inside our borders, we also looked at the amount of carbon dioxide released during the production of the things that we consume,” says co-author Ken Caldeira, a researcher in the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology.

The team used published trade data from 2004 to model the flow of products across 57 industry sectors and 113 countries or regions to calculate the net emissions ‘imported’ or ‘exported’ by specific countries.

“Just like the electricity that you use in your home probably causes CO2 emissions at a coal-burning power plant somewhere else, we found that the products imported by the developed countries of western Europe, Japan, and the United States cause substantial emissions in other countries, especially China,” says Davis.

The US outsources about 11 percent of total consumption-based emissions, primarily to the developing world.

“One implication of emissions outsourcing is that a lot of the consumer products that we think of as being relatively carbon-free may in fact be associated with significant carbon dioxide emissions,” says Caldeira.

The researchers urge regional climate policy to take into account emissions embodied in trade, not just domestic emissions.