Imagine you find a bag with a couple of kilos of garbage in front of your door every day. And the worst is that is contains the packages and broken left-overs of cool stuff you couldn’t ever afford to buy because you’re struggling to pay the rent. Obviously though, one of your neighbors couldn’t care less about wrecking yet another fancy smartphone as the package of the even better model comes along with it. And then that guy goes complaining to your landlord that you should better get rid of that dirt already waving a horrendous bill of a cleaning service. How unfair? That’s what we are doing every day. All of us.
This post is about imported CO2 emissions. Nowadays it is common practice to rather import energy intensive goods from somewhere else than spoiling our own CO2 emission balance. Then we believe to be the good guys and say: “Well, we did everything we could for the climate. And we’re the last ones to forbid people in developing countries to copy our lifestyle. Sorry.”. However, they don’t get the fancy things, which they surely would like to have, too. They’re just left with the emissions. Let’s be honest about that and at least not hide our dirt there.
So whose dirt is this exactly? In a recent study, scientists made it for the first time to follow all our dirty traces around the globe for almost two decades. They show first of all that developed countries with little industry are responsible for much more emitted CO2 than previously thought. And, surprise, while developed countries (with emission-reduction commitments in the Kyoto Protocol) thought to have decreased their CO2 emissions by 2% between 1990 and 2008 they actually increased it by 7% through importing more goods (see original chart).
But how far is this game played by individual countries? A fair comparison of course needs to be based on the emissions caused per person. So I just took their most recent numbers and linked them with the current population statistics from the UN.
What does it tell us? Most striking is that the real emissions of small rich communities like Singapore or Luxembourg are beyond any reasonable limit. I’m sure that it wouldn’t be much different for most rich western cities like New York, London or Munich if they just had their own statistics. Second, European countries like Belgium, Ireland, Norway, and Switzerland are responsible for about 70 – 170% more of CO2 emissions than recorded within their borders. They are playing in the same league as the “evil guys” US and Canada although they considered themselves to be quite green. Talking about the usual suspects, you might be looking for the gigantic Chinese export bar, which appears rather tiny after all. So where do all the western imports come from? A big part indeed stems from China but there are simply so many Chinese that the amount per person is very small.
I hope this chart helps to open some eyes and be honest about our share of global warming. Although it looks desperate on the first glimpse, I would like to point out where we have to get. According to many scientists, we all have to reduce or emissions to about 2 t CO2 per person per year. That is about where many North African countries are at the moment. With the right strategy this is possible. A scientific report of the German Advisory Council of Global Change estimates that global warming can be limited to the broadly accepted 2°C if we reduce our emissions to 5 t CO2 per person per year within 11 years (by 2022) and to 2 t CO2 per person per year within 25 – 30 years (by 2036 – 2040). That surely doesn’t come for free and we will have to change some habits quite rapidly. Nevertheless, it is as sure that we won’t go bankrupt or have to live under conditions as in North Africa. The political concepts and technologies are there. We just have to implement them.