Global supply chains have allowed wealthy countries to make lofty emission reduction claims - while outsourcing their carbon footprint overseas
Decades of discussions about climate change and ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions should have put the world on a path to slow down the heating of our planet. Many of the largest polluters, historically, have claimed large greenhouse gas emissions reductions and embarked on paths to “green” their economies.
At the COP26 climate negotiations kicking off in Glasgow on Sunday, countries are expected to set new emissions reduction targets and indicate how they plan to achieve them. Under the 2015 Paris agreement, those targets should be revised every five years and be incrementally ambitious.
The United Kingdom, which hosts the summit this year, has announced a target to cut emissions by 78 percent by 2035. Between 1990 and 2019, the UK’s carbon footprint was reduced by 44 percent.
However, the picture changes once emissions from UK consumption are accounted for: the overall reduction is only 15 percent.
In other words, the UK as well as the US, the EU and wealthy countries that have based much of their development on unrestricted emissions, still outsource a great deal of their emissions. Imported goods embody on average one quarter of the global carbon footprint, and in the UK that number hovers closer to a whopping 46 percent. In 1990, only 14 percent of UK emissions were produced overseas.
The story in Europe isn’t much different. While the European Union has been credited with significantly reducing its emissions compared to 1990 levels, when consumption-based emissions are included in the count then EU emissions have actually grown by 11 percent.
“We pay very little attention in the UK, but also in many other countries, to energy generation overseas,” says Laurie Parsons, a lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway who has studied the ‘carbon footprint’ of international trade in the United Kingdom.
In a recent report, Disaster Trade, Parsons looked at the textile industry in Cambodia. The report shows not only how the UK’s emissions have actually increased as a result of the southeast Asian country’s energy policies in recent years, but also the adverse environmental impacts the outsourcing of those emissions has had at the local level.
Cambodia recently made a pivot towards coal, after its move to hydroelectric power hit a dead end due to a climate-change induced scarcity of water in the last few years. After six months of rolling blackouts affecting industry as well as citizens, the Cambodian government decided to build four new coal power plants - with financial support from China - including one based in Laos for exclusive Cambodian use. The latter is set to have a mammoth capacity of 2.4 gigawatts, and its own coal mine with it.
These projects were already under way when China announced in September it intends to stop building new coal power plants abroad.
The UK’s achievement in phasing out coal in the last few years should not be decoupled from the energy policies of the countries that make the UK’s goods, Parsons argues.
“Actually in many other countries that make our goods it is going in the opposite direction,” Parsons says, pointing out that the largest Cambodian plant will be “bigger than the entire carbon footprint of the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
“We say that we've got coal out of our system, but actually what we've mainly got is manufacturing out of our system,” Parsons tells TRT World.
Your clothes pollute more than your flights
The garment industry has long been subject to scrutiny for its human rights record, but its environmental footprint is no less problematic. It should come as no surprise that the advent of ‘fast fashion’ has led to an increase in the production and waste of textile products.
Clothing and footwear production are responsible for 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
And that is just production. Moving the goods to their final destinations, but also the raw materials needed to produce them, generates emissions. Freight alone is responsible for 7 percent of global emissions, and that is expected to increase fourfold by 2050.
The outsourcing of emissions is a key reason why despite decades of incrementally stringent environmental regulations, global atmospheric CO2 concentrations have continued to increase - from 339 parts per million (ppm) at the time of the first World Climate Conference in 1979, to 402 ppm at the time the Paris Agreement was signed and 417ppm today.
The shifting of production, in many cases from countries that have low-carbon electricity to countries where coal-based and older technologies are still in place and environmental regulations may not be as strict is known as “carbon leakage”.
“The net result is that introducing climate regulation in the first [low-carbon] country has actually led to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly if you layer in emissions from shipping or aviation,” says Sarah Colenbrander, an environmental economist and director of the climate and sustainability programme at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
However, with a “limited carbon budget left”, Colenbrander argues, “if we're going to produce X tons of greenhouse gas emissions, they should be used to improve quality of life in Cambodia, and Ethiopia, and Colombia, not to have an extra flight in the US or in Australia.”
“The story needs to be about how to make sure that they are able to pursue that path in a way that has minimal greenhouse gas emissions,” Colenbrander tells TRT World. “Carbon leakage is definitely a problem for the planet if it creates an incentive for some countries to not introduce environmental regulation.”
To avoid that, governments have been trying to come up with solutions to tax goods according to the amount of carbon used to produce them. In other words, to put a price on carbon.
The EU, for instance, has put forward proposals to introduce a so-called Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) arguing it will “seal the EU's reputation as a global climate leader.” Under the mechanism, which would initially apply only to companies importing iron, steel, cement, fertiliser, aluminium and electricity, heavily-polluting industries would have to buy carbon certificates in order to sell into the EU.
But critics of those proposals – which would particularly affect Russia and China - have argued that they could penalise African countries while at the same time encouraging them to find other markets to sell into.
In other words, a level-playing field is proving extremely difficult to achieve. Similar carbon border adjustment proposals in the United States aim to introduce a levy on imports without pricing carbon at home.
“There's definitely a widespread perception that some countries are introducing rigorous climate regimes of the supply chain because they want to bring manufacturing home,” Colenbrander says. “This is greenwashing protectionism.”
Parsons says his field research in Cambodia shows how international supply chains are inherently complex and obscure. In much the same way as exploitation continues in supply chains despite pledges by international companies to improve their human rights record, the use of sub-contractors and intermediaries will continue to make tracking the real environmental impact of international trade – and particularly the cheap clothes we buy - difficult.
“We have a global economy, and if we continue to only measure the environmental damage that we do within the borders of rich nations, then we have completely missed the point,” Parsons says.