America and the West’s dirty little secret

America's trade deficit is fueling climate change

Julian Ohalloran By Julian Ohalloran

Smoke billows from a coking factory in Hefei, China. It might be dirty, but Americans couldn’t buy inexpensive Chinese goods without it and others. (Reuters)

Twenty years after world leaders launched a global effort to combat climate change, we are nowhere near winning the struggle to curb greenhouse gases that the scientific consensus says cause erratic weather, melting glaciers and desertification.

New figures suggest carbon dioxide caused by burning fossil fuels hit a record global level of 31.6 million metric tons last year.

That’s the worrying backdrop for the RIO + 20 Summit that begins in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on June 20th. The three-day event will mark the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio, which gave rise to the 1997 Kyoto protocol.

Why no progress? Perhaps it’s because we track greenhouse gas emissions poorly, says Glen Peters, an Australian researcher now based at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway.

Here’s the idea. Peters and other experts say production reporting — the status quo — only considers emissions from point-specific sources like cars and buildings. Consumption-based reporting, however, would take into account less visible, yet significant, sources of emissions, like importing goods and traveling by plane.

It’s no secret that the U.S. and other wealthy countries produce the lion’s share of climate-altering emissions. But using consumption-based reporting as a frame often shows that the U.S. and other wealthy countries are even bigger culprits in global warming than many now assume. “The current accounting framework allows rich countries to report emissions reductions while increasing their consumption and the consequent pollution in distant lands,” says Peters.

U.S. resists Kyoto

The Kyoto protocol became international law in 2004. It aimed to reduce developed nations’ greenhouse gas emissions by more than five percent by the end of this year. Under Kyoto, dozens of developed countries have made specific pledges to cut emissions. But the U.S. is not among them.

Although President Bill Clinton signed the protocol in 1997, the Senate never ratified it, and President George W. Bush didn’t support it. Critics argued Kyoto would harm American workers and do too little to compel developing countries like India and China to curb emissions.

Nevertheless, the U.S., like the countries that ratified Kyoto, reports its domestic carbon emissions to the United Nations. In 2010, these were eight percent higher than in the protocol’s base year, 1990.

But Peters and economists elsewhere challenge those numbers. They contend that the UN tracks only emissions released within individual countries’ borders. Such an approach doesn’t reflect true carbon footprints.

Instead, emissions caused elsewhere by citizens must also be counted to gain a real view of a country’s carbon footprint, the economists say. That includes factoring in all the greenhouse gases caused by importing food, equipment and raw materials, plus those caused by domestic and overseas flights.

Carbon hidden in plain sight

On the basis of consumption, for example, America’s 2010 carbon footprint was 22 percent above the 1990 figure, nearly three times the increase reported under regular Kyoto criteria.

Pollution in other developed economies is also far worse when their consumption-based emissions are put under the spotlight.

British politicians often portray themselves as leaders in reversing climate change. Under Kyoto standards, the country was supposed to reduce its footprint by 12.5 percent, but London claims to have surpassed that target, cutting 14 percent in total. But looking at consumption-based emissions reveals Britain’s carbon footprint was actually 20 percent higher in 2010 than in 1990.

What about developing countries? Critics often wag their fingers at Asia, saying the workshop of the world is too dirty, citing a rise of 235 percent in China’s domestic carbon dioxide emissions since 1990 under Kyoto measures.

By a consumption analysis, however, China’s emissions have risen by only 164 percent.  That’s because a huge slice of China’s economy churns out goods for export to the U.S. and Europe, where leaders never account for the emissions associated with imports.

In Kyoto terms, South Africa’s record also looks poor. But when viewed through the lens of consumption, its 2010 carbon emissions of 452 million metric tons falls to 341 million tons, a drop of more than 30 percent.

Kyoto gives a distorted view of South Africa and other countries that must increase emissions in the short term to grow, claims Michelle Pressend of the Economic Justice Network in Cape Town. “Looking only at territorial emissions is grossly unfair to many countries in Africa and Asia,” she says.

Critics of consumption-based emissions say these counting methods are still in their infancy and not universally accepted.

And even proponents of consumption worry that switching to a new reporting method might unravel the hard-won progress they’ve achieved under Kyoto so far. But that doesn’t mean looking at imports and other forms of demand is misguided, they say. “There’s no cheating going on,” says Keith Allott, head of climate change at the World Wildlife Fund UK, an international organization that advocates for wildlife. “What it doesn’t do is tell you the full picture.”

The UN should count consumption emissions alongside territorial numbers to pressure the Northern hemisphere to stem consumption, says Pressend. “If that doesn’t happen, we could well suffer a catastrophic global temperature rise of four degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) in this century and experts are agreed that Africa will suffer worse than any other continent.”

Change might be on the horizon

Lisa Mastny of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC says American states and cities have grasped the nettle of consumption. “Oregon, the Seattle region and San Francisco have all started to measure consumption-based emissions, putting those places way ahead of most governments,” she says.

Washington has been slower on the uptake. “There’s still a gulf between [local officials] and the federal level, where decision-making is paralyzed and there’s little urgency to address probably the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced,” says Mastny.