Why We Should Really Be Talking About National Carbon Footprint, Not Just Carbon Emissions

As the COP17 climate talks wind down, with virtually all major greenhouse gas emitting nations, both developed and developing, either unwilling to commit to serious reductions at all or in a time frame that will prevent dangerous warming, an article in IPS News raises an important point: In determining the climate impact of any nation, it's really carbon footprint that matters, not just direct emissions.

The point is that in addition to emissions originating within a nation's borders—from electricity generating, transportation, agriculture, industry, what have you—in assessing progress on mitigating a nation's climate impact, as with personal impact, the emissions of all goods consumed, whether produced domestically or abroad, need to be included.

The example par excellence is China. A number of studies have shown that roughly one-third of China's greenhouse gas emissions are tied to goods produced there but destined for export. Under most carbon emission tallies, all these emissions are allocated to China and not the nation's consuming these goods.

This both makes China's responsibility for warming greater than it ought to be based on carbon footprint and makes emission reductions in nations importing these goods appear lower as the climate impact of production of the goods, previously produced domestically (at some point in that past, near or distant depending on location), has been moved elsewhere.

Gabriel Felbermayr, a German professor of economics quoted in the IPS News piece:

Industrial countries document CO2 savings but in reality emission have only been shifted abroad, leaving total world emissions about the same...From 2002 to 2007 France reported stagnant or slightly decreasing CO2 emissions. In contrast, its per capita footprint increased continuously over the same period.

Given the difficulty in getting nations to agree to combatting climate change through current carbon accounting, based on direct national emissions, I don't hold out hope that a switch to carbon footprint-based determination of responsibility will gain ground, even if it's more accurate.

More than anything though what it shows is that the adversarial, zero-sum, assumptions that permeate the international negotiations—despite lip-service paid to shared responsibility among all nations—are simply bunk. The defensive nationalistic negotiating stance exhibited by the US, Canada, China, India and to varying degrees by all but the most vulnerable nations in the Pacific, in South Asia, in Africa is grossly inadequate in addressing the transboundary nature of climate change.

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