Rich countries are twice as responsible for greenhouse gas emissions

ive here. A new sport is to blame climate change. Developed economies are trying to hold their manufacturers, especially China, responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, including for exported goods.

Written by Hezri Adnan, Assistant Professor in the College of Science, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur and Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development. Originally published on the Jomo website

Natural flows do not respect national boundaries. The atmosphere and oceans cross international borders with little difficulty, because greenhouse gases and other liquids, including pollutants, cross borders easily.

However, in multilateral fora, strategies for addressing climate change and its impacts remain largely national. Greenhouse gas emissions – usually measured as carbon dioxide equivalents – are the main basis for assessing national commitments to climate action.

assessment of national responsibility

Jayati Ghosh, Shovik Chakraborty and Dipamanyu Das think critically about how to assess national climate responsibilities. The standard method – used by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – measures greenhouse gas emissions by activities within national boundaries.

This approach attributes greenhouse gas emissions to the country in which the goods are produced. This carbon account focuses the blame for global warming on modern industrial economies. But it ignores who is consuming the goods and where, along with diverting attention from those who bear the greatest responsibility for historical emissions.

Thus, attention has focused on the major national emitters. China, India, Brazil, Russia, South Africa and other large developing economies – especially the “late industrialized countries” – are becoming the new climate bad guys.

China, the United States and India are now the world’s three largest emitters of greenhouse gases in absolute terms, accounting for more than half of the total. With the rapid growth in recent decades, China and India have greatly increased emissions.

Undoubtedly, some developing countries have experienced rapid increases in greenhouse gas emissions, especially during periods of high growth. In the first two decades of this century, these emissions increased more than three-fold in China, 2.7-fold in India, and 4.7-fold in Indonesia.

Meanwhile, most rich economies have seen smaller increases and even decreases in emissions, as they “outsource” labor and energy-intensive activities to the Global South. Thus, over the same period, production emissions decreased by 12% in the United States and Japan, and by almost 22% in Germany.

opacity on the inequality

Comparing total national emissions alone is not only one-sided, but also misleading, as countries have very different populations, outputs, and economic structures.

But assigning responsibility for global warming is essential to ensuring fair burden sharing for adequate climate action. Most climate change negotiations and discussions usually refer to total national emissions and income measures, rather than per capita levels.

But such framing obscures the underlying inequality. A per capita view comparing average greenhouse gas emissions offers a more nuanced, if understated, perspective on the global disparities involved.

Thus, despite recent cuts, rich economies are still the largest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases. The United States and Australia emit eight times as much as developing countries such as India, Indonesia and Brazil.

Despite recent increases in emissions, even China emits less than half the per capita levels of the United States. Meanwhile, the growth of its annual emissions fell from 9.3% in 2002 to 0.6% in 2012. Even The Economist I acknowledge that China’s per capita emissions in 2019 are comparable to the industrialization of Western countries in 1885!

Many developments have contributed to recent reductions in emissions from rich countries. Wealthier countries can afford better “climate friendly” improvements, by shifting energy sources away from more harmful fossil fuels to lower greenhouse gas emissions options such as natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy.

Changes in international trade and investment with “globalization” have led many rich countries to shift greenhouse gas-intensive production to developing countries.

Thus, rich economies have “exported” the production of – and are responsible for – greenhouse gas emissions for what they consume. Instead, developed countries make more money from “high-value” services, much of which is related to financing, and they require much less energy.

Export emissions, blame shift

Thus, the rich countries effectively adopted the proposal of the then chief economist of the World Bank Larry Summers to export toxic waste to the poorest countries where the “opportunity cost” of human life is supposed to be the lowest!

His original proposal has since become a development strategy for the era of globalization! Thus, polluting industries—including production processes that emit greenhouse gases—were moved, along with labor-intensive industries, to the Global South.

Although the final published version of the IPCC report was not mentioned, more than 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries were due to the export of production to developed countries.

“Emissions exports” by rich countries OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) increased rapidly from 2002, after China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). It peaked at 2,278 million metric tons in 2006, or 17% of emissions from production, before dropping to 1,577 million metric tons.

For the OECD, the “carbon balance” is determined by deducting the carbon dioxide equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions for imports from those for production, including exports. The annual growth of greenhouse gas emissions from exports was 4.3% faster than all production emissions.

Thus, per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in the United States were eight times what they were in India in 2019. Per capita emissions in the United States were more than three times those of China, even though it remains the most populous country in the world. It emits more emissions than any other country.

With the increasing production of products with high greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, rich countries have been actively “exporting” their emissions. As these imports are consumed, rich economies are still responsible for related greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfounded change

Carbon-emitting industries have been “exported” – taken offshore – to import their products for consumption. But the UNFCCC’s approach to determining liability for greenhouse gas emissions focuses only on production, ignoring the consumption of such imports.

Thus, if the responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions is also due to consumption, the differences per capita between the North and the South are greater.

In contrast, the OECD wants international corporate income tax revenue to be distributed according to consumption, not production. Thus, contradictory criteria are used, as convenient, in favor of rich economies, shaping tax and climate discourses and rules.

While domestic investment in China is becoming “greener,” foreign direct investment by companies from there is developing coal mines and coal-fired power plants abroad, for example, in Indonesia and Vietnam.

If unchecked, such FDI would put other developing countries on the worst path for fossil fuel energy, mimicking the historically rich economies of the Global North. Instead, the global Green New Deal would enable a “big boost” for “front-loading” investments in renewable energy.

This should allow adequate financing for a more equitable development while ensuring sustainability. Such an approach would not only address inequalities at the national level, but also international disparities.

China now produces more than 70% of its solar PV panels annually, but it is effectively banned from exporting it abroad. In a world of greater cooperation, the production of renewable energy generation facilities in developing countries will be encouraged at lower costs – and at affordable prices.

Instead, rich countries are using now-high energy costs – caused by supply disruptions in the aftermath of the Ukraine war and Western sanctions – to further backtrack on their modest and insufficient commitments to slow global warming.

This decline puts the world at greater risk. Already, the international community is being urged to abandon the maximum allowable temperature increase above pre-industrial levels, thus broadening and deepening the already unjust relations between North and South.

But change is in the air. Investing in renewable energy technologies and supporting them in developing countries wishing to generate electricity can enable them to develop while mitigating global warming.

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