Carbon Exports of the American Kind

by Bill Chameides | May 16th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Sending coal to China may help our balance of payments, but not our balance of traded carbon emissions.

As in most of the world’s developed economies, U.S. emissions of the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide (CO2) have started to flatten out. For example, between 2000 and 2007, U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions rose only about one percent a year [xls] from 5,900 million metric tons to 6,060. Between 2008 and 2010, overall emissions actually fell by about 3.6 percent. A good deal of that decline can be attributed to the recession but not all.

Fuel-Switching Helping to Decrease U.S. Emissions

The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimates that a significant fraction, perhaps a third, was due to America’s cleaning up its act — by, for example, using relatively clean natural gas instead of coal. And this fuel-switching trend is likely not a blip — rising coal prices [pdf] and falling natural gas prices, coupled with growing opposition to coal, have fueled speculation there’s a de facto ban on building new U.S. coal-fired power plants.

And so the future of U.S. emissions (and of most of the developed world’s) doesn’t look all bad. Even without federal climate policy, EIA projects U.S. emissions will increase annually by only about 0.6 percent. At that rate our emissions won’t return to their 2007 peak levels until 2028 [xls]. Of course, that’s not the significant decrease needed to address climate change, but it suggests the problem of getting to those necessary reductions will not be quite as hard as some might assume.

That’s the good news. But  there’s bad news too: namely, the developing world’s rising CO2 emissions. While ours are starting to flatten out, growing emissions in developing economies, especially China, have been driving global emissions upward.

Between 2007 and 2035, EIA projects that energy-related CO2 emissions will grow by 0.1 percent annually in the developed world (i.e., the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD]) compared to the developing world’s annual 2 percent. Already in 2007 non-OECD, energy-related CO2 emissions exceeded OECD countries’ by 17 percent. Barring new climate policies, EIA projects that by 2035:

  • energy-related global emissions will rise to about 42.4 billion metric tons,
  • non-OECD emissions (around 28.2 billion metric tons) will be about double those of OECD countries, and
  • China’s energy-related emissions will grow the fastest at an estimated 2.7 percent annually, rising to 31 percent of the world total. (See source for EIA projections.)

It’s Not Just Production That Matters — Consumption Is Big

Clearly limiting climate change is a hopeless proposition without reining in the developing world’s emissions. But while wagging an accusatory climate-change finger at countries like China may seem easy, it may not be entirely appropriate. A significant amount of China’s carbon emissions stem from the production of goods destined for the developed world, particularly the United States. How much? To answer that question, Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway, and co-authors carried out a detailed life cycle analysis of the goods that flow between countries.

In addition to the traditional, oft-cited territorial-based emissions inventory, Peters et al developed a consumption-based inventory that tallied total carbon emissions embodied in products consumed by various nations and global regions. The two inventories show marked differences. For example, for the territorial inventory, China is the world’s number one emitter and the United States is number two. But that order is reversed in a consumption-based inventory.

In 2008, Peters et al estimate, CO2 emissions from U.S. imports (~1,200 million tons) topped those from exports by about 500 million tons or roughly nine percent of U.S. territorial carbon emissions. Almost 400 million tons of our carbon imports came from China.

Bottom line: As an emitter, the United States may’ve begun to turn the corner, but as consumers, we’re still the world’s leader in greenhouse gas emissions. And that’s not the end of the story.

No. 1 in Carbon Imports and Increasing Carbon Exports

The flattening of U.S. emissions is due in part to our eschewing dirty coal for natural gas. That means, all things being equal, tons of U.S. coal would stay in the ground. Uh-uh, says the coal industry — a big buyer wants our coal.

See, China’s in a bit of a bind. While trying to rein in emissions, China depends upon coal for much of its industrial and power-generating sectors. In 2009, for instance, China consumed about 46 percent of the world’s coal but held only 13 percent of recoverable reserves. So China must import, and the size of those imports is likely to grow and grow. In fact, between 2008 and 2009, China’s coal imports more than tripled, from about 44 million short tons to 150.

The U.S. coal industry wants to be the one to meet that demand. So get this: Proposed coal-exporting facilities on the West Coast (see here and here) would link coal from the Powder River Basin [pdf] in Wyoming and Montana to coal-fired power plants in China (and elsewhere) to produce carbon-intensive products that can be consumed by Americans who can congratulate themselves for living in a country whose carbon emissions have stabilized.

Ah, the miracles of import/export.

filed under: carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, coal, economy, energy, faculty, fossil fuels, global warming, natural gas
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