Outsourcing Global Warming
A day rarely goes by without some mention of outsourcing and the U.S. trade deficit that has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. In addition to eliciting worries among economists and policymakers because of the related wage reductions and job losses, the yawning trade deficit has also alarmed many scientists concerned about the surge in greenhouse gas emissions in countries like China. A new study published in Environmental Science & Technology has now shown that the rapid growth of imports in the U.S. over the few years has contributed significantly to the greenhouse gas emissions of its trading partners, particularly those like China with lax environmental regulations.While domestic consumption also measurably increased during the same period, Christopher Weber, one of the study authors and a professor in Carnegie Mellon University's departments of civil and environmental engineering and public policy, explained that U.S. emissions "haven't gone up proportionately." This is mainly due to the fact that Americans are increasingly purchasing goods produced in other countries: according to the latest statistics, imports into the U.S. grew by 128% between 1997 and 2004.
Christopher Weber and his coauthor Scott Matthews used a multiregional input-output model to assess the greenhouse gas emissions embodied in trade between the U.S. and its seven largest import partners, including Canada, China, Mexico, Japan, Germany, Korea and the U.K., from 1997 to 2004. Their results indicated that greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. imports constitute a large proportion of total U.S. emissions.
Whereas carbon dioxide emissions from imports were only 9 - 14% of total U.S. emissions in 1997, they constituted 13 - 30% in 2004 (a growth in emissions from 0.5 - 0.8 gigatons in 1997 to 0.8 - 1.8 gigatons in 2004). A similar trend was observed in other greenhouse gases: for example, sulfur dioxide emissions rose from 2.4 - 5.0 million tons in 1997 to 3.8 - 11.9 million tons in 2004.
This phenomenon, dubbed "carbon leakage," occurs when emissions associated with consumption in one country actually arise in other countries and has shown tremendous growth over the past two decades as companies in industrialized countries have outsourced their employees and work to poorer countries to avoid stringent health and safety regulations.
Indeed, another of the study's key findings was that imports from China are significant contributors, especially due to the country's dependence on high carbon, coal-based power in industrial production. A plentiful workforce, low wages and lax environmental standards have made this booming economy an attractive location to outsource work for many expanding U.S. companies.
"A lot of the issue with these carbon calculations is not only where we are now but where we are headed in the future," said ecologist Christopher Field at the Carnegie Institution of Washington who recently documented the worrying increase in global carbon dioxide emissions in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
John Laumer, our own resident expert on issues of climate and security, offers some thoughts on what this all means:
Political translation: - we [the US] can't take a leadership role in reducing our emissions until the Chinese sign on to do the same. But, it's OK to assign to China the proxy duty of emitting CO2 to manufacture our imports, albeit at grossly more inefficient levels than would have been the case, had those same imported goods been "Made in the USA" The hypothetical emissions effect of not having out-sourced at that historic level, of course, remains unknowable. The point is that a very significant part of our carbon footprint is hidden by an addiction to cheap as possible imports. This is one of those insights that changes how you see the world. It has an effect analogous to this statement: The greater part of all gasoline tax levied in in the US has been rendered invisible by renaming it "The Defense Budget".
See also: ::One Graph Is Worth A Thousand Back Room Deals: Which Coal-Driven Transportaton Option Is Best For Both Climate And Security?, ::China To Top U.S. in Greenhouse Gases This Year, ::China Has a Plan for Climate Change, ::In China, Hold the Cell Phone for Environmental Activism, ::Beware The Environmental Wedgie