Is the West responsible for China’s CO2 emissions?

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Exports to developed nations account for a large part of China’s emissions increase. Photo: Stockxpert

China may have surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases but almost half of the emission increase in China is due to production of exports, most of it to western countries. (CICERO)

The report “Journey to world top emitter”, to be published in Geophysical Research Letters, states that Chinese CO2 emissions increased by 45 percent from 2002 to 2005. Half of the increase was due to export production, 60 percent of which was exported to western countries. Electronic commodities and metals are important products. Only 7 percent of the emissions increase was triggered through household consumption in China.

International climate agreements do not account for how emissions cross national borders because of imports and exports. In the Kyoto Protocol, every country is responsible only for emissions on its own territory. The process where a country reduces emissions on its own territory but increases imports is known as carbon leakage, something that the West is guilty of, the US in particular.

Dieter Helm, professor of economics at Oxford University, told The Guardian recently that the study provided further evidence that the West had ” simply outsourced our production” of carbon emissions.

Li Gao, China’s top climate negotiator, says that any fair international agreement to curb the gases blamed for global warming would not require China to reduce emissions caused by goods manufactured to meet demand elsewhere. Li directs the climate change department at the National Development and Reform Commission.

So enough with the China bashing.  Let’s think about who really is to blame.

As importers and consumers, if we demand certain product standards, shouldn’t we pay the extra costs incurred to meet those standards? Shouldn’t international attempts to curb emissions focus more on where goods are consumed, rather than where they are produced? Dieter Helm has suggested that measures such as a border tax on carbon transfer could be used to ensure that net importers are offered incentives to cut emissions from products manufactured overseas.

Or is this simply a case of China manoeuvring to get the most favorable deal that they can at Copenhagen later this year?

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