Outsourced carbon emissions

I’m always a little wary of regions that report a drop in carbon emissions, simply because we “outsource” so many of our emissions to developing nations.

Lets say you have a carbon intensive industry that is contributing significantly to your nation’s emissions and the pressure is on to do something. Often the easiest and cheapest way to deal with the problem is to sweep it under the carpet by sending it to a developing country. Your local market still gets the goods it demands and then you can claim success in reducing emissions. It’s really twisted logic but often also very profitable for the companies involved as the cost of manufacturing overseas can be far cheaper.

This outsourcing of emissions and other environmental issues is what led me to write the “Ease up on China” post back in 2007 when the nation was being blamed for every environmental woe and was constantly demonized. They were simply responding to demand.. from us. Since that time, China has made great strides in addressing environmental issues, but it still remains a massive factory for other countries.

Anyhow, these outsourced emissions finally have a number attached. A new study from the Carnegie Institution for Science has determined that over a third of carbon dioxide emissions associated with consumption of goods and services in many developed countries are actually emitted outside their borders.

The study found in 2004, 23% of global CO2 emissions, or 6.2 gigatonnes CO2, were traded internationally, primarily as exports from China and other emerging markets. In a range of countries including Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, the United Kingdom, and France, 30% of consumption-based emissions were imported. Many Europeans contributed >4 tons CO2 per person in 2004.

In the USA, 2.4 tons of carbon dioxide per person were outsourced overseas in 2004. Before claiming any sort of victory, it should be noted that USA carbon emissions in total would still be far higher than those of Europeans, even with the outsourced emissions taken into account. I suspect the same could be said of Australia.

Just as a point of comparison, 22.5% of the emissions produced in China in 2004 were connected to exports. India is another country that serves as a factory for the West.

We’re now 6 years further down the track and while some tentative measures have been put in place to reduce carbon emissions, I doubt the outsourced emissions picture has improved as so many companies have shifted operations overseas since that time.

Sweep enough under a rug and after a while the bulge will become noticeable – and it’s good to see that it finally has.

The answers? Buy local and buy green of course, but equally as important, carefully evaluate what you need vs. what you want. While I’m not necessarily saying we need to live in a state of constant self-denial, everything we buy that is not a necessity is an added strain on the Earth’s resources and contributes to issues such as escalating greenhouse gas emissions.

There’s nothing wrong with downshifting and leading a simpler life. Many people find it’s a lot happier existence when that lifestyle is a choice rather than it being forced upon them. I’m suggesting it’s something we should aim for before it is.


Impulse buying reduction tips
Consumption statistics
Food miles and sustainability