The author is a Senior Visiting Research Associate at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford and formerly at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. For short topical comments, go to HOME AND BLOG page. Click BLOG below the photo for recent blogs, or click a subject for blogs by topic or archived items . The navigation bar links to longer individual commentaries, eg SCIENCE VS SCEPTICS, or site navigation. To make comments on a post, click on "comments" at end of that post.
Should we be doing
more to limit our trade with China, if we are
serious about having a global effect on emissions rather than concentrating on
purely domestic issues?
[Third in a series originating in a set of questions put by sixth form students. I should also thank Environmental Change Institute colleagues. Their ideas have inspired a number of my comments.]
and climate connections are many, so a full answer has several dimensions. They
relate to the amount of CO2 emissions embedded in the manufactured goods we
process, to comparison of manufacturing methods and energy policies in
different countries, to fuel use in shipping, to the international norms that
govern trade, and potentially to the enforcement, if any, of international
current international system of accounting for greenhouse gas emissions, they
are generally attributed to the country where they enter the atmosphere,
regardless of where any final products go.
This limits our understanding of the full impacts of our own national consumption. One
illustration is the apparently very substantial reduction in UK emissions since
1990. Closer examination reveals this was due, not just to the coal to gas
transition or the growth in renewable energy, but in large measure to the
de-industrialisation of the UK in the 1980s and 1990s under the Thatcher
government. In other words since 1990 the UK has exported much of its
manufacturing industry and the CO2 emissions that went with it. The
reduction in our carbon footprint is less than we occasionally pretend.
it is sensible to look beyond the patterns of energy use within the UK, as well
as beyond our own personal choices within the home and in personal travel. There
will be an embedded carbon footprint in all the goods and services we purchase.
If we all reduced our consumption of manufactured goods, but especially those
that have a high carbon content, then that would certainly be an important
impact. It is not always easy to tell which are the worst industries in causing
emissions, but one recent report by the World Bank has claimed that the fashion
industry is responsible for 10% of global emissions, more than aviation and
almost impossible for individual consumers to make meaningful calculations of
the carbon footprint of different products, but we can collectively make
sensible choices through trade policy. It will be important to trade with
countries that have strong environmental policies and are willing to take
action on reducing emissions, and setting meaningful targets, like the European
Union. Goods produced in those countries will, over time, tend to have a significantly
lower carbon footprint than others, especially as their emissions reduction
policies start to bear fruit.
policies are now starting to impact on, and create tensions for, trade policy.
As the EU seeks to avoid simply exporting its own manufacturing to countries with less commitment to reducing emissions,
it is proposing measures that will ultimately amount to a carbon adjustment tax
at the border, for countries that are not part of the EU’s own ambitious
emissions reduction programme. We should expect to see this, and its
reconciliation with WTO rules on trade, as a major source of controversy over
the next few years.
imports from China?
most of the UK’s international imports (and their embodied carbon) are not from
China. China accounts for only about 7% of UK
imports, about the same as France but with a higher proportion of manufactures,
and significantly less than the USA and Germany at about 11% each. A further
complication is that the carbon footprint of your purchase will depend on how
what you are buying is manufactured in China, and whether the process there
results in more or less carbon emissions than it would if you were buying a
similar product from somewhere else.
we should be careful not to overstate the negative impact of China on our carbon footprint. China currently has a very high share of the world's manufacturing and the emissions that go alongside; and they
also have what is almost certainly an excessive amount of coal-fired capacity,
much of which is under-utilised and may eventually be retired early. On the
other hand they have also been
very active in developing and promoting low carbon technologies, including
wind, solar and nuclear. And they are themselves very vulnerable to climate
change so they have some strong incentives to improve.
Shanghai, 2011. Coal barges on the Yangtse.
China has other emissions problems, particularly with city air
pollution. The Chinese city of Shenzhen,
with a population similar to London, has 17,000 electric buses (in part to
improve air quality), whereas London has 200.
In terms of emissions generated per head of population, China ranks well
below Saudi Arabia, Australia, the United States and many other countries,
although surprisingly it is above France.
Does distance matter?
Surprisingly, and although shipping is a significant contributor to
global emissions, the carbon footprint of the freight involved in trade will be
a small part of the total and will usually be less important than the footprint
involved in manufacture. Other things being equal it makes sense to trade with
your neighbours, but other than for obvious bulk items or sometimes for lower
value perishable items where air freight is involved, the distance to market
will not usually be a critical factor.
Benito Mueller gives an interesting example. “According to DfID, … the emissions
produced by growing flowers in Kenya and flying them to the UK can be less than
a fifth of those grown in heated and lighted greenhouses in Holland.”
But emissions from freight and food miles are topics for another day.
And the lessons from this analysis?
The carbon footprint of the manufactured goods we buy does matter.
“Fast fashion” accounts for a surprisingly high proportion of global
We cannot avoid the connections between climate-related issues and trade
China accounts for quite a small proportion of our total imports.
Distance will usually be less important than the carbon content of the
means of production in different countries. Food miles will not always be a
good indicator of environmental credentials..
have not so far found an authoritative estimate of the contribution of motor
manufacturing, but its contribution appears to be less than 10%, although it is
clearly one of the larger contributors.