Developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom are farther behind on their carbon reductions than their national inventories show, after factoring in the emissions associated with goods they import from elsewhere, according to a new import-export database developed on behalf of Carbon Brief.
“While the U.S. and many European countries have reduced their domestic emissions over recent decades, some of this reduction has been offset by increasing imports from countries, such as China, that have a more carbon-intensive energy mix,” reports analyst Zeke Hausfather. After adjusting for that reality, the differences are stark: the UK shows only an 11% GHG reduction between 1990 and 2014, rather than 27%, and domestic emissions in the U.S. increase 17%, rather than falling 9%.
“There is a fundamental question of who is responsible for emissions: the countries that directly emit CO2, or the countries that purchase goods associated with those CO2 emissions,” Hausfather explains. “By tracking ‘consumption emissions’ that account for imported CO2 from trade, researchers can, to some extent, account for carbon transfers associated with the decline of manufacturing in developed countries over the past few decades.”
The approach runs counter to national emissions inventories produced by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which only considers emissions produced within a country’s borders. That arguably means misplacing export-related emissions that “have grown dramatically since the early 1990s,” Hausfather says, “accounting for a growing share of total consumption emissions of most developed countries.”
Carbon Brief’s summary gives a detailed explanation of the input-output model behind the analysis and traces the changes in countries’ emission profiles based on their imports and exports.