Turning Global CO2 Emissions Upside Down

by Bill Chameides | March 16th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 1 comment

Are China and India really responsible for the increasing global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2)?

Sometimes our perceptions of reality are determined by how we choose to frame an issue. When it comes to pollution, we’re accustomed to blaming the producers of that pollution and sometimes placing the onus of cleanup on them. Seems reasonable enough.

But there’s another way to think about this.

For the most part, pollutants are byproducts of some process followed to make a product that is intended for and is ultimately purchased and used by a consumer.

If consumers purchased less of the product, there would be less pollution. In a similar vein, if consumers purchased more efficiently produced products, even if they were more expensive, there would be less pollution.

So who is responsible for pollution: the producer or the consumer?

A new paper by Steven Davis and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that when it comes to divvying up responsibility for global CO2 emissions, it makes a difference.

Country CO2 Emissions Produced and Consumed from 2004 (million tons CO2)

CO2 Consumed CO2 Produced Net CO2 Imported (+) or Exported (-)
United States
6,500 5,800      700
China 3,950 5,100 -1,150
4,430 3,330   1,100
Japan 1,600 1,310      290
India 1,260 1,360    -100
Russia 1,210 1,500    -290

Notes: Green denotes net importer. Blue denotes net exporter. Values have been rounded and are limited to CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. More information here. Data are from 2004; if up-to-date data were used, Chinese CO2 production would be larger than U.S. CO2 production.

Consumers as Indirect Producers

When it comes to exporting products — many of which are produced through carbon-intensive processes — China is the champ — at a whopping rate of about 1.2 billion tons of annual CO2 emissions.

But it’s not a coincidence that China is such a huge CO2-emission exporter. Its wares are generally cheaper than their counterparts that are produced elsewhere. And we who live in developed economies choose to buy those cheaper products even though one of the reasons they’re relatively cheap is that they’re typically made using relatively pollution-laden processes.

One might justifiably argue, then, that we consumers are not just innocent bystanders when it comes to generating CO2 pollution in China but that we are actually complicit.

In the current accounting system, China would be responsible for all of their CO2 emissions in a global treaty designed to rein in global CO2 emissions. But what would happen if we changed the accounting system and made consumers responsible for a share of the imported emissions? Would that turn the system upside down? Or would it be right side up?

filed under: carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, faculty, global warming
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1 Comment

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  1. Prasad Kasibhatla
    Mar 25, 2010

    I would argue that emissions should be allocated, at least in part, to the country (or countries) which gains GDP due to the activity that produced the CO2.

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