Azara Blog: Carbon emissions should be accounted for by consumers, not producers

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Date published: 2007/10/06

The BBC says:

The UK's increasing dependence on Chinese goods is contributing to a rise in carbon emissions, a report suggests.

The New Economic Foundation (Nef) says such reliance is adding to CO2 levels because China's factories produce more CO2 per item than British ones.
Over the last year, UK imports from China rose by 10% nearing 6.5 million tonnes, Nef reports.
"Every time we hear a government minister talking about climate change, they seem to be drawn towards scapegoating China and its rising emissions," said Nef's policy director Andrew Simms.

"But a big factor in that rise is that China has become the major factory for the western world, so their greenhouse gas emissions are largely driven by higher levels of consumption in the west."

Two years ago, US researchers calculated that 14% of China's carbon dioxide emissions were accounted for by exports to the US.

Nef believes that international negotiations on climate change should move towards a system where emissions are attributed to the end user rather than the country producing the goods.

It points out that rising production of consumer goods in China and other developing countries also contributes to local pollution, depletion of water supplies, and deforestation.

Nef also said the international trade pattern prompted higher greenhouse gas emissions from transport but had little discernible benefit for the consumer.

During 2006, the UK exported 15,845 tonnes of chocolate-covered waffles and wafers, but imported 14,137 tonnes.

During the same period, 20 tonnes of mineral water were exported by the UK to Australia, while the UK imported 21 tonnes. And thirty-four tonnes of vacuum cleaners went from the UK to Canada, with 47 tonnes travelling the other way.

"Why would that wasteful trade be more the rule than the exception?" asked Andrew Simms.

He suggested that a pricing system that reflected carbon produced in transport would be an effective way of curbing this two-way trading, by making local goods cheaper.

Like reports from most of the academic middle class consultancies that plague the nation, NEF reports are normally pretty naff. Here at least they have one valid point. They are not the first to have pointed out the trivially obvious fact that the current international accounting of emissions is bogus, since it looks at production rather than consumption. But they fail to point out that this is the fundamental flaw with the Kyoto Treaty. The EU can look very green by getting China to emit carbon on its behalf, and in some ways this makes the problem of emissions worse, not better, since Chinese factories are more polluting. And similarly with the other forms of environmental degradation which Chinese factories manage to externalise.

The academic middle class hate global trade, so of course hate global transport. Sure transport should be subject to a carbon tax. But most international trade is done via ships, and they are pretty efficient. And it would be a massive distortion of the economic system just to put a carbon tax on transport. All carbon should be taxed at source. Period. (Well, some people prefer a permit trading system to achieve the same effect.) (Note, taxing it at source means that the eventual consumers of the goods and services have to pick up the tab.) Transport is no more and no less sinful than any other form of carbon emission. And funnily enough, in the UK, private vehicles are the only forms of economic activity which (way more than) pays a carbon tax. Train commuters, in particular London train commuters, escape any form of carbon tax, heck they don't even pay their direct operational costs, never mind any form of environmental tax.

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