Scientists hope proposed new method of carbon accounting will bridge divisions between rich and poor countries
By Megan Darby
Scientists have proposed a new way of counting countries’ carbon emissions that redraws the map of responsibility for climate change.
It is carbon footprinting with a twist. As with the conventional method, countries are responsible for emissions from imported goods. But the figures are adjusted to reflect the fact some exporters use cleaner technology than others.
By this measure, the European Union clearly outperforms the US, having improved its carbon efficiency at home. Among emerging economies, Brazil compares favourably to China, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change.
“The most important thing is: you get credit for clean export and you get penalties for dirty export,” Astrid Kander, professor at Lund University and lead author, told RTCC.
This way of looking at emissions could help overcome entrenched divisions in climate negotiations between rich and poor countries, she suggested.
“The results are interesting because they don’t cut clearly between north and south. We hope that it can help to resolve some of the blockages in climate negotiations.”
With around a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions associated with goods traded across national borders, the question of responsibility for climate change is significant.
The research aims to provide a fairer approach to carbon accounting than either of the two main methods in use today.
The production-based system, under which countries are responsible for the emissions generated within their borders, penalises exporters.
China has long argued it should not be punished for being the factory of the world. A significant proportion of its emissions go to produce goods for developed countries.
Meanwhile, manufacturers in rich countries complain of “carbon leakage”. This is the concern that emissions restrictions simply drive heavy industry (with all its jobs and economic benefits) abroad rather than spurring innovation and efficiency.
Alternatively, the “carbon footprint” or consumption-based method gives importers responsibility for the emissions embedded in these products.
“The problem with the conventional carbon footprint is countries are given no responsibility whatsoever for the technology which they use in their export sectors,” explained Kander.
“They can export those goods and the receiving country takes all the responsibility for the inefficient technologies that have been used.”
Dubbed “technology-adjusted consumption-based accounting”, the latest method treads a middle path between those options.
Europe comes out of this analysis significantly better than the US, Canada and Australia.
The EU has improved its carbon efficiency at home faster than the global average, while developed counterparts across the Atlantic have not.
Austria, Ireland and the Netherlands in particular emerge as clean exporters.
“The results challenge the gloomy picture of developed countries outsourcing dirty production,” said co-author Tommy Wiedmann, associate professor of sustainability at University of New South Wales in Sydney.
“In fact, many countries have managed to reduce their carbon footprints by cleaning up their own production.
“But under our proposed method they must continue to improve their carbon efficiency faster than world average to lock in those gains”
For China, both methods of carbon footprinting give a lower emissions figure than the production-based approach, reflecting its substantial exports.
But the latest proposal cuts China less slack than conventional carbon footprinting calculations, putting more pressure on Beijing to improve carbon efficiency.
In contrast, Brazil gets credit for its low carbon energy system and fares better under the technology-adjusted method.