CO2 doesn't know borders, but we are shipping embodied carbon all over the world

carbon flows
© The carbon loophole in climate policy

Brad Plumer looks at the issue of "outsourced pollution."

We go on a lot about embodied carbon; it is the main reason we love wood construction so much. We love local materials too, because one is not offshoring the CO2 to China. It is often controversial, but now the New York Times is on it. And by Grabthar’s Hammer, it is like that scene from Galaxy Quest where Jason tells Brandon: “IT’S ALL REAL!” The title for Brad Plumer’s story is You’ve Heard of Outsourced Jobs, but Outsourced Pollution? It’s Real, and Tough to Tally Up.

Plumer points out that the US and Europe have reduced their carbon footprint from manufacturing.

But those efforts look a lot less impressive once you take trade into account. Many wealthy countries have effectively “outsourced” a big chunk of their carbon pollution overseas, by importing more steel, cement and other goods from factories in China and other places, rather than producing it domestically.

Chinese steel, aluminum and concrete is all made with coal, creating a lot more CO2 than if it was made in the US or Europe, but the Paris agreement only counts emissions within a country’s borders. According to an updated report, The Carbon Loophole in Climate Policy, Plumer writes:

The United States, for its part, remains the world’s leading importer of what the researchers call “embodied carbon.” If the United States were held responsible for all the pollution worldwide that resulted from manufacturing the cars, clothing and other goods that Americans use, the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions would be 14 percent bigger than its domestic-only numbers suggest.

lbc© Living Building Challenge

Plumer notes that the building sector is beginning to think about this, though not very deeply yet. (Some, like the Living Building Challenge, have been thinking about it for a while)

The construction industry is also starting to take an interest in the carbon footprint of the materials it uses. The U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit that certifies buildings as “green” under the LEED label, currently encourages environmental disclosures for a variety of building materials like cement or glass. A new round of LEED standards, currently in development, could go even further by urging low-carbon standards.

There are also “Buy Clean” proposals in various states to promote the use of lower carbon sources of materials, but of course, “In California, the cement industry fought hard to be exempted from the rule.”

spec-board© Architype/ A low-carbon diet for green building

This issue may be new to the New York Times, but it is very real; a lot of people are worrying about it, and are doing something about it. My favourite example is the work of Architype, with buildings like the Enterprise Centre, designed to have the lowest embodied energy possible by using local materials. Who needs concrete and steel when you have wood and straw?

Plumer is right that it is tough to tally up the true embodied carbon in materials from different countries. It is also probably not worth the trouble trying to figure it out; wherever they are made, they have a big impact. We have to think about just using less of these materials with high embodied carbon, rather than just finding the cleanest source.

See lots more on embodied energy and carbon in related links below.

Embodied carbon© Global Efficiency Intelligence

CO2 doesn't know borders, but we are shipping embodied carbon all over the world
Brad Plumer looks at the issue of "outsourced pollution."

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