Exporting pollution

Goat cheese and tomato sandwich

The government of Brazil is demanding that the UK take back 1,400 tonnes of hazardous waste that have been shipped to three Brazilian ports. The incident illustrates the broader phenomenon of rich states exporting pollution, both in the form of directly shipping hazardous materials abroad and by eliminating highly polluting industries domestically and importing their products from developing countries. All this helps to sustain the illusion that lifestyles in developed states are sustainable, since both resource and waste problems are shifted to places where they are less immediately visible.

Whether the issue is ozone depleting substances, persistent organic pollutants, or greenhouse gasses, distance alone is no real protection for the population of developed states. Fundamentally global problems like these require coordinated solutions involving states at very different levels of wealth, and with different internal political arrangements. The negotiators at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Copenhagen this December have quite a challenge ahead of them.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Exporting pollution”

  1. Green.view
    Trading down
    Industry’s move from the rich to the poor world is confusing the carbon accounts

    Mar 9th 2010 | From The Economist online

    ON MARCH 4th The Economist ran a story about the challenges facing scientists who are trying to find out which greenhouse gases come from where. On March 8th a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Steve Davis and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution’s campus at Stanford University brought to the fore a further problem in trying to figure out who emits what—one that turns not on how carbon flows through the atmosphere and biosphere, but on how it flows through the world economy. Who should be held responsible for the greenhouse-gas emissions involved in making, say, a flat-screen television? The country where the television is made? Or the country where it ends up being used?

    Looking at the carbon emissions associated with a country’s consumption, rather than its production, does not change the general outline of what is going on in the world: rich people still emit more carbon dioxide than poor people do. But it does heighten the contrast. Rich countries which import manufactured goods from poorer ones end up with even higher emissions; poor countries that export a lot of manufactured goods with lower ones. Using figures from 2004, the most up to date that have the sort of industry-specific data they need, Dr Davis and Dr Caldeira reveal the striking scale of this effect. They find that roughly a quarter of the world’s emissions end up being consumed somewhere other than where they are produced. For a few small and reasonably post-industrial countries, such as Switzerland, the emissions associated with total consumption (emissions produced in Switzerland minus those associated with goods produced there and subsequently exported plus those associated with goods imported) are more than twice the emissions actually produced on Swiss territory.

  2. Wednesday, August 25, 2010 6:13 AM
    Unpaid environmental costs distort trade

    Jeff Rubin

    Greening our economy isn’t just about what we produce—it’s also about what we consume. Sending smokestack industries off to distant shores in search of cheap labor markets to make the things we consume may lessen the carbon footprint of our own economies, but it sure doesn’t do much for the global footprint. And since there are no borders in the atmosphere, it’s really the global imprint that counts.

    Take steel, for example. The mass migration of North American steel production to China certainly hasn’t lessened the industry’s global environmental footprint.

    If all steel plants emitted equally, it wouldn’t matter where they were located.

    But when it comes to full-cycle carbon emissions, all steel plants are decidedly not equal.

    While China may boast some of the world’s newest and most energy-efficient steel mills, it houses a whole lot more plants whose energy-efficiency is a fraction of that of steel plants that have been shuttered on this side of the Pacific.

    Moreover, virtually all steel mills in China are serviced by coal-fired power—which is far and away the dirtiest form of generating power. (Coal is 80 per cent of China’s power, compared to 50 per cent for the US and only 12 per cent for Canada). Combine the gap in energy efficiency between Chinese and North American steel mills with the greater carbon intensity of Chinese power and, on average, the plants where world steel production has migrated emit one third more carbon than the plants it left.

  3. Robert Watson says that if emissions “embedded” in imported goods are counted, UK emissions are up, not down.

    He says the same syndrome is true for other rich nations which offshored manufacturing industry.

    That means developing countries – particularly China – are blamed for goods they buy for export to the West.

    He said: “At face value UK emissions look like they have decreased 15% or 16% since 1990. But if you take in carbon embedded in our imports, our emissions have gone up about 12%. We’ve got to be more open about this.”

    Prof Watson is often outspoken and his comments are likely to be brandished by poor nations looking to put pressure on wealthy countries in next months’ climate talks in China.

    A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said this phenomenon was acknowledged by the government.

    The British government has known for some years that UK emissions cuts were not what they seemed, but that has not generally stopped ministers trumpeting emissions reductions in interviews.

    In response to Prof Watson’s remarks, a DECC spokesman said: “Our position is that greenhouse gas emissions in the UK have been cut by 22% since 1990. While some emission reductions have resulted from the trend for manufacturing to move overseas, international rules state that emissions from manufacturing are counted by the country of production.”

  4. On a production basis, many of the rich countries (but not America, which has not ratified Kyoto) have cut their emissions—by 6% in 1990-2008 in the case of the European Union. But the EU’s imports of embodied carbon from developing countries rose a lot more than its local emissions fell. Overall, the rich world’s increase in “carbon imports” is six times bigger than cuts in the developed countries’ own industrial emissions. The lion’s share of this carbon comes, predictably enough, from China; 18% of the global increase in emissions since 1990 is embodied in Chinese exports.

    Mr Peters and his colleagues see no evidence so far that carbon-control policies, weak as they are, are shifting production to less regulated countries. Carbon follows trade patterns set by other factors; it does not shape them. Sterner carbon restrictions, though, might provoke rich-world industrialists to press for tariffs on carbon-intensive imports with which they cannot compete. A more fruitful approach might be to see the trend in terms of the need for greener investment outside the rich world. Spreading low-carbon technologies there matters as much or more than decarbonising developed countries.

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