When China Makes Goods for the US, Who’s Responsible for the Emissions?

By Andrew Moseman | March 9, 2010 11:12 am

coal pollution air factory power220When researchers rack up the carbon emitted across the world, the standard trends emerge: Europeans put less CO2 into the atmosphere than Americans, but China’s rapid ascent is sending its emissions shooting past those of the United States. However, this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Stanford University researchers attempt to rejigger the numbers to reflect not just where the emissions are produced, but who is responsible for them—who’s buying and consuming the products that cause those emissions.

After study global trade databases, Steven Davis and Ken Caldiera say that in 2004, 23 per cent of global CO2 emissions – some 6.2 gigatonnes – went in making products that were traded internationally. Most of these products were exported from China and other relatively poor countries to consumers in richer countries [New Scientist]. The researchers say that developed countries outsource about a third of the carbon dioxide emissions connected to their consumption.

When you look at the numbers this way, the per capita emissions in Europe don’t look quite as good: If those emissions were tallied on the other side of the balance sheet, it would add more than four tons of CO2 per person in several European nations [TIME]. The United States saw a lesser increase of 2.4 tons per person, though that’s not really a cause for celebration. Part of the reason is that the country has more carbon-intensive exports than Europe, the study says, and under the new accounting those emissions are going on somebody else’s books. The United States also takes in the lion’s share of China’s: 22.5% of China’s emissions are generated during production of goods and services consumed overseas, and 7.8% are embodied in exports to the US alone [BBC News].

This isn’t the first time that climate change experts have raised the question of how much responsibility consumers bear for carbon emissions produced on the other side of the globe. Other studies are trying to crack this same problem, tracking “consumption” emissions rather than just the “territorial” emissions produced inside a country’s borders. What they find could shake up how the world goes about trying to reduce emissions. The U.N. system is built around the idea of capping carbon emissions from individual nations. But which country is responsible for the carbon emitted in global trade? The buyer or the seller? [TIME]

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Image: iStockphoto

  • Jay Fox

    By mandating control of emissions solely on where they are emitted, they may very well force even more jobs from the US to overseas locations. The race will be on to find countries with relative low carbon output and willing workforces.

  • Mark

    I would put the responsibility on the buyer, because without the buyer there would be no emissions. This adds a substantial environmental cost to all the cheap goods coming out of China and the rest of the third world.

  • Charlie

    They’re both responsible but it doesn’t matter from a tax perspective. Regardless of whether you tax the consumer or the producer, the laws of supply and demand will distribute the burden of the tax the same way. I say add a tax to goods that is indexed to the quantity of CO2 required to produce it. That will make consumers favor more responsible companies and pressure companies to produce cleaner goods.


    it was written in the newspapaer”scientist” in last yaer that CHINAS developen and managed the climate – is these true?
    CHINAS demaged a lot of sucessfull LABELS in the world because they steel all documents from oyher firms, person and plus!
    a firm ” mariposa” hacking network (recording everything typed on the PC is written in the FT) and an other firm sell all art of documents ….!!

    UNO – an organisation for what? for security and understanding in the world – i like to talk with them: why is it possible that people/children died? the inhabitants of every countrie give their voice for a gouverment and they have organised that everybody had a place to live – these is the basic in the law! and the UNO had to controlled these – i mean these is important!

    and the other important thing is ; the earth is our aller mother and we have more to recpect they and take not more so mutch from their body because than somebody do it with your – the body can never worked in the same quality!!!

    i like to write my doctor now – i study a lot of books from the historie and now in different language – you can see that is happen in a lot of time – the SAME!!!

    reni v bifamo
    innovativ consultant/representant
    (diplingdesign,economist and projektmanager f ing and scietist) sometimes artist,actor, poete and

  • mike o

    wow… how can you even respond to-


  • mike o

    I had a real comment to make before I read that. It’s basically the same thing that Mark said. That is, take this idea a step further and make the consumer responsible; diminish the demand.

    Personally, I don’t want to be fiscally responsible for the wastefulness of other Americans (or people anywhere). Tax products themselves, not the nations or companies that produce them. Put a label on every product akin to the Nutrition Facts label that breaks down its environmental impact.

  • YouRang

    It doesn’t matter who pollutes. Tax it all ; but who would collect the tax? Who would dispense the results? What kind of use would it go to? The UN can’t be trusted to use the money; the UN’s declaration of human rights is manifestly violated by most of the countries in the UN (no religious liberty, no woman’s rights, no free speech.) On the other hand, the US is not free from neighbors with guns. :-)

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