India hints at new focus on consumption based emissions

India wants countries to take responsibility for pollution created abroad by imported products. Could this work—and is it fair?

A clothes factory in the Dharavi slum of India (Pic: BBC World Service/Flickr)

A clothes factory in the Dharavi slum of India (Pic: BBC World Service/Flickr)

By Sophie Yeo

India’s environment minister has hinted he would like a major shift in the way countries account for their emissions at the UN climate talks.

Prakash Javadekar wants nations to take responsibility not only for the pollution that they produce on home soil, but also that which they create in other nations.

“It will not be rhetoric as usual at Lima. We are going to talk about not only per-capita emission, but also per-capita consumption,” said Javadekar in quotes reported by India Climate Dialogue.

His comments came days after the US and China agreed an historic deal to limit their greenhouse gas emissions, placing the spotlight firmly on India at the upcoming set of UN talks in Peru’s capital, which start on December 1.

This consumption based based approach would mean that, whenever an item is imported, the emissions that go into its production in its country of origin would be included in the inventory of the country where it ends up.

It also signals a that India could employ a new negotiating tactic at international talks, which are aimed at delivering a global climate agreement by December 2015,

Equitable formula?

On the face of it, targeting consumption is a fairer approach to counting emissions.

In its most recent report on how to bring down carbon pollution, the UN’s IPCC climate science panel highlighted the fact that more and more emissions derive from the manufacture of products that are traded across international borders.

“A growing share of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in middle income countries is released in the production of goods and services exported, notably from upper middle income countries to high income countries,” it said.

The UK Energy Research Centre found that, while territorial emissions in the UK reduced 19% between 1990 and 2008, its consumption based emissions increased by 20%.

It had exported its pollution overseas, while benefiting from cheaper labour and material costs.

The uncomfortable fact that countries like the UK are able to reduce their home emissions by outsourcing them abroad led to a parliamentary enquiry in 2012. “The UK is contributing to a net increase in global emissions,” noted the final report.

Real impacts?

But ranking countries according to their consumption emissions does not create a vastly different list than that of territorial emissions.

According to research published in the Earth System Science Data journal, the top polluters based on consumption emissions in 2012, in order, were China (22%), the US (18%), the EU (15%), and India (6%).

Based on territorial emissions – the current, boundary-based approach – China is responsible for 26% of global emissions, while the US decreases to 17%. The EU drops to 12%, while India jumps to 7%.

For consumption emissions, as with territorial emissions, the ranking alters radically when calculated on a per capita basis. For every 18 tonnes of carbon dioxide consumed per person in the US, only 5.8 is consumed in China, and 1.5 in India.

Pic: Global Carbon Atlas

Pic: Global Carbon Atlas

According to analysis published in the Guardian, from 2012-13 India exported $142 billion worth of products abroad. Its most lucrative markets were petroleum products, gems and jewellery and pharmaceuticals.

$4.1 billion of this went to the UK, $19.7 billion went to the US, and $18.6 billion to the United Arab Emirates.

And the moral dilemma of outsourced emissions is not restricted to climate change.

Apart from minimising its own carbon footprint, countries are encouraged to use foreign labour as a cheap alternative to home grown efforts. Regulation, health and safety standards and wages can often be lacking as a result, leading to some of the sweatshop scandals of recent years.

In 2007, children were found to be working illegally in a New Delhi sweatshop producing products for the US clothing company Gap.

Delhi delay?

India’s own motivations for proposing a consumption based approach to the UN climate talks deserves some scrutiny.

The timing was significant; Javadekar made the suggestions following the announcement of new emissions targets from the US and China. It was a diplomatic turnaround that will leave India having to reassess its relationship with its erstwhile developing country ally.

At the UN climate talks, India has frequently positioned itself as a hardliner, refusing to take on binding reductions alongside the US and the EU—and until now it had the clear support of China. In the past few weeks, the situation has become more ambiguous.

Franz Perrez, Switzerland’s head negotiator and environment ambassador, said that it could be a “stalling tactic” on India’s part, as talks head towards their climax in Paris next year.

“I’m not sure it is a serious desire of India to move towards such an approach because it would have direct trade implications,” he said. In other forums, India would be likely to resist a carbon-based approach to trade, he told RTCC.

Harjeet Singh, climate change lead at ActionAid International, suggested that India’s idea was more about taking a holistic view of the world’s carbon emissions, rather than one determined by boundaries—an approach which excludes the polluting shipping and aviation industries.

This is because global warming is determined not by the rate at which emissions are produced, but their total volume over time.

The UN’s science panel confirmed in its recent report that total human emissions should not exceed 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon if the world is to remain below 2C of warming. Two thirds of this had already been emitted by 2011.

“From a climate perspective it’s an excellent idea because it’s not about who’s emitting, it’s about globally how much we are emitting,” said Singh. “Especially in light of the carbon budget, I think it makes a lot more sense to have a global discussion on consumption.”

‘Certainly fail’

And it’s not just India which is supporting the idea. While it has had little take up among other developing countries, there has recently been a flurry of academic interest in the notion.

Academics Timmons Roberts and Marco Grasso suggested in a recent paper that, rather than imposing another ideological burden onto the UN talks, a consumption based approach could ease existing tensions.

Sharing out the remains of the carbon budget based on countries’ consumption could remove barriers between developed and developing states, leading to a fairer but politically achievable deal, they suggest.

On the other hand, during the UK’s 2012 parliamentary enquiry into the topic, climate minister Greg Barker suggested that such an approach was both technically and politically impossible—so much so that it would be “well nigh impossible to negotiate a global emissions reduction treaty on the basis of consumption-based emissions.”

He added: “We would almost certainly fail if we tried to do that.”

One reason he gave is that countries simply do not have the same control over their consumption emissions as their domestic ones.

While the UK, for instance, can reduce its pollution by investing in more energy efficiency and renewables on home turf, the only way to minimise its Chinese footprint is to consume less. It is up to the Chinese government to create less polluting factories.

He also made the point that the UN climate talks are slow and fragile. Introducing another controversial and technically complicated method now—with a deadline of just over a year for signing the new deal—could throw thousands of neurotic diplomats into panic.

A growing field

Calculating consumption emissions requires complex, real time data that countries have not yet started to collect on the scale needed. It would also need to be globally standardised in order to allow comparisons.

The difficulty of compiling this could be one reason why there have not been more calls for the consumption based approach, suggests Ruth Wood, a fellow at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research—as well as the fact that emerging economies benefit from the income that the trade brings.

“Trade is mutually beneficial but the burden on protecting the environment falls unequally because of that system,” she said. And she adds that the benefits of the new approach could eventually outweigh trouble of collecting the data.

Academics have already made leaps in the field, she said, and the UK has started to calculate and use its consumption emissions, with the latest data due out in December.

“It’s a younger methodology than traditional territorial accounting methods. there is still uncertainty in the numbers in generates, but it’s getting better,” said Wood.

“I imagine we’ll start to hear more of it.”

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