Weekend Roundup: The Emissions of Others

The carbon footprint of consumers can’t be separated from the factories of the supply chain

Nathan Gardels

Much of China’s carbon emissions come from Western consumption of goods. (Getty)

It was like two eras passing in the night.

Inspired by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, millions of young people around the world skipped school and mobilized in mass demonstrations this week calling for urgent action to address the climate emergency. “Extinction Rebellion” is the moniker many among them have adopted for their cause aimed a de-carbonizing the planet.

As Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, the Wasserman Dean at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and the prominent UCSD climate scientist V. Ram Ramanathan told The WorldPost this week, the newfound energy of “students on fire” is a key opportunity to induce scientific reasoning among youth and accelerate climate action. “Climate change has ignited the rapid kinetic movement for youth agency and action in service of the common good,” they said. “To let this new energy go to waste would be a shame. Climate change education for all should be a part of the solution for moving forward.”

Also this week, what might be called the Extinction Establishment, led by Saudi Arabia’s beheader-in-chief, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and U.S. President Donald Trump, sought to rally a reticent international community in defense of the geopolitical order of the fossil-fuel age in response to an attack by Iran-linked forces on key Saudi oil facilities.

While the battles over oil will be fought out in the bloodied sands of the Middle East, the new geopolitics of climate action must encompass the entire planet. For that reason, de-carbonization efforts need to be as integrated as the global economy itself and the supply chains that feed it. The carbon footprint of consumer societies cannot be separated from that of the mines and factories that produce the goods they consume.

California, for example, has set a goal of achieving “carbon neutrality” by 2045 through strict fuel emission standards and reliance on renewable energy resources. The city of San Francisco aims to be a “net-zero” emitter of carbon by 2050. Similarly, Germany has pledged to seek a 55 percent reduction of carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2030. To help meet that goal, cities like Freiburg have “invested in renewable energy, imposed Germany’s strictest building standards, constructed an entire low-emissions neighborhood, built bicycle lanes and tram lines and pushed cars out of the city center.”

Both California and Europe have cap-and-trade systems that put a price on carbon by requiring polluters to buy increasingly costly allowance permits for emissions. These permits can then be sold and traded from cleaner to dirtier industry, thus incentivizing lower emissions across the economy.

As laudable as these most advanced green practices anywhere are, for the moment they only aim to reduce emissions on their own territory. They do not account for the emissions of others, in China for example, that result from the manufacturing and assembly of everything from Apple smartphones to Nike shoes to the inexpensive clothing from discount stores consumed by the populations of California and Germany. Yet it is the total planetary output of carbon that matters when it comes to climate change.

In most industrial sectors in China, Ma Jun writes, “75 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions are produced from the supply chains. In a globalized world, this means China’s emissions are generated to meet more than just its own rising demand. Research conducted by the Carbon Trust found that China is the world’s largest emitter in the apparel sector, but 72 percent of those emissions are essentially the responsibility of companies overseas where the products are exported and sold.”

Frank Atkinson, the late environmental economist, has made the same argument in The WorldPost: “The apparent progress on emission reductions in rich countries has occurred at a time of widespread outsourcing of manufacturing to China and other developing countries. In the process, we have effectively outsourced our carbon emissions as well. If consumers are responsible for the emissions from making the consumer goods they buy, then we have not solved the problem. We have just made it harder to see — and much harder to measure.”

For all the admirable advances in California and elsewhere, green citizens tied to their ubiquitous devices are nonetheless increasing the overall energy input and output of greenhouse emissions. As Vaclav Smil once put it in The WorldPost: “Now people buy cell phones which are an accumulation of silver, copper and other metals that it takes a lot of energy to extract and mold — every six months! And most of these cell phones are not recycled. They are just thrown away. That is absolute waste. People say, ‘oh, this cell phone is so much lighter and better for the environment and blah, blah, blah.’ But no, there has been no absolute dematerialization. We are just using more of everything. The same is true, obviously, of iPads and tablets.”

To effectively reduce carbon emissions in a global economy, it is therefore necessary to link consumer markets and supply chains. One way to do this is for places like Germany or California to cooperate with China on climate action, including through integrating their cap-and-trade markets. China’s cap-and-trade system is modeled on California’s. As they move toward full integration, a common carbon price would be established.

A key step in this direction was taken this week at the U.N. climate summit. Former California Governor Jerry Brown and China’s top climate official, Xie Zhenhua, signed a memorandum of understanding for cooperation, including on taking steps toward integrating carbon markets, through the newly established California-China Climate Institute, which they will co-chair. It will be assisted by numerous Californian and Chinese governmental and nongovernmental agencies and is supported by the Berggruen Institute.

As we have seen over the last century, securing oil resources for energy has led to serial conflicts and wars in the Middle East. The present Saudi-U.S. versus Iranian confrontation is only the latest episode. The geopolitics of the post-carbon age will of necessity be different. Because everyone has a common self-interest in net-zero solutions that blunt global warming, the imperative is planetary cooperation, not zero-sum conflict between nations.