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Has the U.S. Stabilized its Carbon Emissions?

October 10th, 2013 · 1 Comment · Uncategorized


I am taking a class on Urban Research Methods and recently learned about the various ways “mutant stats” develop.  One such reason is an obvious one…certain groups will skew numbers and the contexts that encases these numerical values to represent the social, political, and/or economic agenda they support.  This happens in every issue or matter of debate in our society, and especially with the present (and strange) debate on climate change.  Some opponents of anthropogenic climate change argue the United States is no longer responsible for polluting and emitting massive quantities of carbon dioxide.  These opponents do not simply deny human beings’ role in global warming but they also reject the fact that the United States is contributing to the “problem” because they believe a) we as a nation have stabilized our emission levels through the shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy and b) other nations like China and India (nations transitioning from agricultural to industrial economies) pollute more, and therefore we are exempt from blame SHOULD our atmosphere begin playing the role of a hot, hot oven.  The lesson on misleading statistics brought me back to a paper I wrote discussing this exact problem.  Government policies contain loopholes that provide the opportunity for an abundance of people to create definitions and produce numbers that may appear convincing at first, but are biased and erroneous in reality.

The United States’ immense prosperity, power, and influence were not spontaneously acquired overnight. It was a gradual confluence of hard-working citizens, a rise in technological innovations, and an abundance of available resources. The pivoting point for modest America’s transformation into becoming the world’s leading nation occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution (1820-1870). The invention of engine-powered factory-production machines and efficient human labor (e.g. the assembly line) made the extraction and management of resources a relatively easy task. The rabid and insatiable desire to expand and flourish became the impetus for the U.S. to burn fossil fuels at unsustainable rates, thus filling the atmosphere with a variety of green house gases, predominantly carbon dioxide.

In the past, polluting activities such as burning coal and extracting natural gases and oil at an unprecedented rate were unmitigated actions that ultimately established the U.S. as a Superpower. However, modern science has proved the detrimental effects of anthropogenic climate change, and so the U.S. – along with other major polluters – is struggling to reduce its emissions to improve its reputation. Developed nations desire to expunge themselves from the guilt of their forefathers and discover ways to be more energy efficient. In order to facilitate the U.S. and other developed nations such as the United Kingdom and Sweden in their complicated transition into becoming “climate-conscious” entities, the Kyoto Protocol worked with the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to configure strategic methods to reduce emissions of developed nations, while permitting the progression and industrial growth of developing nations. According to Scientific American contributors Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala, Since 1952, there has been a 39% reduction in the U.S.’s share of global carbon emissions, a 23% reduction since 2002, and this value is predicted to decline over the coming years. These numbers at first glance ostensibly bring upon “good news”, however, it is important to understand the way these percentages were calculated. The seemingly apparent decline in carbon emissions from the U.S. is represented in number-form, however, we do not see a downsizing shift in our consumerism behavior. We, as a society, as a nation continue to over-consume, over-produce, and waste many materials. So how are we actually reducing the rate of our global emissions contribution? Americans have not drastically revolutionized their daily consumption habits, nor have industries uprooted every piece of inefficient technologies and replaced them with alternative, “green” ones. However, they did transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. Imports have increased as exports have decreased, thus allowing for their carbon footprint to be offset and outsourced to developing nations. This fact is not reflected in the values provided by Socolow and Pacala’s article.

According to the results of a study called “Growth in Emission Transfers via International Trade from 1990 to 2008”, by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), international trade is a significant factor in explaining the change in emissions in many countries, from both a production and consumption perspective. The UNFCCC established that the “level of mitigation for an individual country should be based on “equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities””(Peters et al, 1). In response to this determination, the Kyoto Protocol applied a “fragmented, two-tier mitigation strategy in which developed countries are given a “quantified emission limitation or reduction commitment” for the period 2008 to 2012” (Peters et al, 1). Developing countries are excluded from this “commitment” due to the fact that they still need to burn fossil fuels to expand their industry and work to become a developed nation. Developing countries such as China whose growth has been propelled by export-based industries are the largest emitters of carbon dioxide, but it’s carbon footprint drops by almost a fifth when imports and exports are taken into consideration (Clark, 2). According to the PNAS article, “Global CO2 emissions from the production of exported products have increased from 4.3 Gt CO2 in 1990 (20% of global CO2 emissions) to 7.8 Gt CO2 in 2008 (26% of global CO2 emissions) (Table 1). This increase makes CO2 emissions from the production of exported products similar in magnitude to land-use change-related emissions (5). Moreover, from 1990 to 2008, emissions from the production of exported products grew 4.3% per year, faster than the growth in global population (1.4% per year), CO2 emissions (2.0% per year), GDP (3.6% per year), but slower than the dollar value of international trade (12% per year).” Because the data displays very significant increases in the amount of emissions from production of exported goods, it is prudent to follow which nations are producing the most. Further research indicates that the exporting countries are developing nations who sell their products at a low rate to developed nations and support these nations by allowing the outsourcing of companies on their land. The intense use of fossil fuels by China should in theory be propelling its own economy at exponential rates, however, because most of China’s efforts and jobs are geared towards exporting goods, the citizens and country itself does not receive the benefits of internal development. The industries involved in exporting goods make money, but there is little growth within the developing nation as well as the unmitigated perpetuation of pollution added to the atmosphere. U.S. companies such as Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and I.B.M. outsource to China, pay the local workers a fraction of the amount they would pay American workers, apply minimum safety regulations, and emit CO2 relentlessly due to the lax emissions contribution commitments the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol placed upon developing nations.

The IPCC created accounting rules where mitigation only applies to “greenhouse gas emissions and removals taking place within national territory and offshore areas over which the country has jurisdiction” (Peters et al, 1). This is a rather open-ended and incomplete assessment due to the fact that it does not take into consideration the linked economies related to international trade. In the PNAS study, the results show that the IPCC accounting rules of only reporting territorial emissions allow for countries to report stabilized emissions, but once global emissions associated with the developed countries and their consumption are taken into account, they are responsible for an increase in global emissions. These results contradict the territorial emissions statistics reported to the UNFCCC (Peters et al, 5). Because developed nations such as the U.S. import more products from developing nations, they are able to outsource their carbon footprint and global contribution, evade the commitment, and avoid the burden of being labeled as a polluter by the rest of the world.

Without considering the impact of importations and the flow of international emissions, the claim that the U.S. is reducing its share of global emissions is misleading. According to Clark, once the carbon cost of imports are added to each developed country, and exports subtracted, the increase in emissions contribution is 7%. If carbon costs are only calculated using territorial emissions in developed countries, the collective reduction of emission value is 2%. If the IPCC does not come up with a better, all-encompassing method of assessing global emissions, serious impacts of climate change may present itself in a more concentrated, destructive degree and within a shorter period of time.

Some challenges related to the consideration of consumption factors into accounting rules that exist today are implementation and monitoring. Implementing this system can prove to be difficult because of the complexity and nebulous nature of linked economies. International flows of emission are difficult to track, and there are many opportunities for corruption (e.g. hiding/destroying records of trade). Another issue with applying a consumption-based assessment is the arguable question of how much control government can have regarding trading services before infringing upon free-trade rights. Despite these challenges, the results are indicative of a great fallacy in the existing accounting rule implemented by the Kyoto Protocol. There is an urgent need to reconcile the discrepancies and to present more accurate emission statistics so the real matter at hand, climate change, can be addressed.

Given the fact that our world is rapidly falling under the influences of globalization, international trade is inevitable.  New York City is one of the greatest hubs of international products, and all commercial and residential groups rely heavily upon cheap goods from outsourced factories to run our service sectors.  As urban environmentalists, we must be cognizant of the environmental implications of our shopping habits.  This is a huge challenge as so many aspects of our daily life in this metropolis seem heavily reliant upon imported items, and extricating ourselves from it takes more than just eating local fruits and vegetables.  It also takes a lot of determination to change things at a structural level (an onerous task).  But I believe it is always better to be aware and educated than to live in ignorance.  Perhaps one day we can discover an antidote by understanding the issues that ail our culture, so long as we make an effort to think about them little by little every day.


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One Comment so far ↓

  • egale

    Thanks for the interesting overview. What do you think are some of the easiest ways we city-dwellers can reduce our carbon footprint?

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