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The Virtual Carbon Trade

This article was written by Alex Steffen in August 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.


If we want to build a bright green future, we need to know the actual nature of the problems we face. In terms of climate change, this may be less simple than some might have us believe. In the past few weeks, I've come across three concepts that illuminate unexpected angles of the climate crisis (and thus perhaps open the way to unexpected thinking about solutions).

The first is the idea that the emissions for which we're responsible -- our personal carbon footprint, say, or our city's progress towards climate neutrality -- may not tell the whole story. That's because globalization has tended to move heavy polluting industries offshore, away from Europe and North America, and to places like China and Brazil. We still consume the lion's share of the goods these nations manufacture, but the carbon is emitted there, not here, while our exports are largely things -- like blockbuster films and financial services -- whose carbon footprints are comparatively small. As one wag says

If Britain meets its Kyoto target in 2012 (and it may well do), it won’t be because British consumers have made sacrifices to save the planet; it will be because we, like other Western nations, have exported a sizeable proportion of our carbon emissions to China.

Call it offshoring emissions. Or the virtual carbon trade, like the virtual water trade:

When we manufacture goods, we embed energy in them: that is, their existance means we have already spent a certain amount of energy, no matter what we then do with them. In a similar way, when we grow crops we are in a sense embedding water within them. If a kilo of wheat takes a thousand liters of water to grow from sowing to harvest, we can, seen from a certain light, think of that kilo of wheat as containing 1,000 liters of water. When we consider how much water is embedded in the food we transport around the planet, it turns out that there is a massive trade in virtual water. The wetter regions of the world every year ship vast amounts of embedded water to the drier parts of the planet.

In a similar way, the fact that we've offshored our emissions by having our consumer goods manufactured elsewhere doesn't remove what we might think of as the embedded emissions from the carbon footprints of our lives.

Emissions for which we bear hidden responsibility are obscured not just by distance but by time as well. Those of us in the Global North are wealthy today because our ancestors did the things -- like burning whole mountain-sides worth of coal, clear-cutting the vast majority of our forests and building an automotive culture -- that are causing the climate change we're already experiencing.

Historic carbon demands attention. Historic carbon -- the carbon already emitted, often long ago, not the carbon being produced today -- has filled our atmosphere with the current concentration of roughly 383 ppm of CO2. Over the last century, the United States produced over 30% of all the CO2 emitted worldwide (because of our meat-focused diets, our share of all emissions would actually be higher). Our wealth, then, is a form of historically embedded carbon.

The implications here can get a little staggering. For one thing, it means that even if we've greened our lifestyles -- eating our veggies, driving our hybrids, lighting our rooms with CFLs -- these lifestyles are still made possible by using vast stores of embedded carbon. Everything around us is like a landscape of frozen emissions.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't reduce our current emissions. Quite the opposite. Historic carbon emissions burden us with a further ethical obligation. We've already used far more than our share of the planet's ability to absorb pollution. Therefore, we need to move far farther and far faster than those in other countries whose lives are impoverished in part because their nations have been historical light-footed, when it comes to carbon. (There is another benefit of moving quickly, which is that the faster we create better alternatives, the more quickly those alternatives will be available for use in newly-developing countries. This is a win-win for everyone.)

This historical imbalance is why some in the Global South like to call efforts to create a global carbon trading system "imperialism." There is some legitimacy to their critiques, though many then go on to make claims about climate change that are just stupid... but that's a matter for another column.

Here let me just end with this: the real imperialism in this situation is not primarily geographic. It is temporal. Unbalancing the atmosphere, creating catastrophic effects, the worst of which will not be felt for decades and then may have to be endured for centuries, is a crime against the future. We are taking from our grandchildren and their grandchildren the temperate, hospitable climate they would otherwise enjoy, and leaving in its place a climate full of droughts, disasters and suffering -- and we're doing it for our own short-term benefit.

This, then, is the real climate imperialism.

Offshoring Emissions, Historical Carbon and Climate Imperialism is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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