China taking unfair blame for its exported carbon emissions

China is taking the blame for western consumption because of an unfair system of calculating global carbon emissions, a new report suggests

China and other developing countries are being forced to take the flak for western consumption thanks to an unfair system of calculating global carbon emissions, a new report suggests. 

The UK has styled itself as a green trailblazer for its efforts to tackle climate change, with the Department of Energy and Climate Change boasting a 20% cut in carbon dioxide emissions over the past 20 years.  

But a new report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent advisor to the UK government, casts serious doubts on these figures, pointing to the high quantity of greenhouse-gas emissions produced during the overseas manufacture of products which are later consumed within the UK. 

While the UK’s “territorial” emissions have fallen over the past two decades, when imported – or “embodied” – CO2 is added to the mix, total emissions have actually jumped by 10% since 1993, says the committee. This makes the UK one of the largest net importers of carbon (both in absolute and per capita terms) and also the fifth largest importer of Chinese emissions after the US, Japan, Hong Kong and Germany. 

The report not only has implications for the UK’s carbon accounts, but also for China’s. The authors calculate that products from developing Asian economies account for about 30% of imported emissions, half of which come from China. China alone accounted for around 100 megatonnes of CO2 imported to the UK in 2010, a more than two-fold increase on 1993 figures. 

If CO2 emissions were attributed to the country of consumption, rather than production, China’s emissions would drop dramatically. Applying this method to 2004 figures, for example, would see China’s annual emissions drop by around 25%, according to an earlier report by the UK’s House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, released in March 2012. 

That report also looked at the difference between the rate at which consumption based emissions and the rate at which territorial emissions grew over a period of 20 years. Since China’s exports boomed in that period, the rate at which its territorial emissions increased far outstripped the rate of growth for consumption emissions. The UK tells the opposite story: territorial emissions fell over the period, while consumption emissions climbed. 

The large discrepancy in UK figures is due to growth in consumption of imported goods as personal incomes have risen combined with the relocation of manufacturing industries outside of the UK to countries where it’s cheaper to produce, say the CCC. 

UK climate policymakers are so far opposed to any move towards emissions calculations that account for consumption as well as production. The 2012 parliamentary report quoted a minister from the Department of Energy and Climate Change as saying such a shift could prove a “huge distraction” and undermine international climate change negotiations, which are currently based on territorial emissions only.  

But advocates of such a shift say it would be a more equitable approach to international emissions accounting. 

Authors of the 2012 report also argue that “perverse incentive(s) for harmful policy measures to offshore…emissions” could be tackled if developed countries accept partial responsibility for emissions produced in developing countries. 

Carbon labels on imported products to tell shoppers how much carbon dioxide was emitted during production and import and a carbon tax on products entering the EU from manufacturing hubs like China are among measures put forward for consideration by the CCC to help reduce the UK’s carbon footprint.  

Tom Jamieson is an intern at chinadialogue