Blogging on EARTH: A proposed twist on carbon trades at AGU

by Carolyn Gramling
Thursday, January 5, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO: In the ongoing climate negotiations, one issue that keeps coming up is that developing countries should be held to the same standards as the developed world.

But that’s not quite fair, say Steven Davis and Ken Caldeira (both at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif.): Much of the carbon dioxide emitted by those developing countries goes into producing goods that are exported to the developed world — which means the developing world ends up paying for others' consumerism. In other words, we’re outsourcing our carbon dioxide emissions.

So the fair thing for the developed world to do, Davis and Caldeira reported in a poster session today at the 2009 fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, is to help pay for them.

Davis and Caldeira looked at the consumer demand for finished goods — not raw materials — in 2004 for more than a hundred countries. The bottom line wasn’t surprising: Developed countries tended to be net consumers of the goods from that carbon dioxide-emitting production. Developing countries, meanwhile, tended to be net producers.

To put it another way: If you think about goods imported/exported as basically carbon emissions being imported/exported, you can do a strange (and nonintuitive) calculation. In 2004, one person in (for example) a Western European country “imported” about the same mass of carbon (emissions) as five to 10 people in China “exported” that year.

Hinting aside, Davis and Caldeira state their case explicitly: If the roadblock to climate negotiations, such as those going on right now in Copenhagen, is how to put constraints on emissions from developing countries, then divvying up the responsibility for those emissions among both developed and developing countries seems only fair. After all, the bulk of the consumption of the goods responsible for those emissions is happening in the developed countries anyway.

They call this “consumption-based accounting.”

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