Climate Feedback

Trading Kyoto

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Nearly a quarter of carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere is emitted in the production of internationally traded goods and services. Rather than being another nail in the climate coffin, trade could be used as a powerful tool to mitigate climate change (akin to smart trade lifting nations out of poverty) – that’s what Glen Peters and Edgar Hertwich of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology argue in a Commentary on Nature Reports Climate Change.

But harnessing trade to mitigate climate change would first involve a particularly contentious — and complex — problem; that of apportioning emissions from traded goods to their rightful owners. And if that’s judged by who consumes, rather than produces, the goods…then the developed countries are, as ususal, the main culprits.

Currently, the Kyoto Protocol takes a “hands off” approach to this issue, stating that “Parties … shall strive to implement policies and measures … in such a way as to minimize adverse effects … on international trade.”

And including trade in climate policy isn’t helped by the IPCC’s rather narrow definition of ‘carbon leakage’, a term that refers to those emissions that are merely relocated rather than reduced (such as from exports and imports), say Peters and Hertwich.


They argue for a broader definition (based on their recent research) that encompasses all ’emissions embodied in trade’ from supply-chain emissions during production through to transportation. Such a definition could be used to assess all emissions embodied in exports from countries without emissions constraints to those with constraints, independent of cause, and could ultimately be used to bring emissions from trade under the umbrella of a global deal – by way of emissions caps or the Clean Development Mechanism or some such device.

Wealthy countries taking responsibility for the emissions embodied in their imports would be a world away from current practice. But as Peters and Hertwich point out, the more usual proposals to cap each nation’s production emissions have met resistance, not only from poorer countries guarding their ability to develop, but also from richer ones who fear that unrestricted international competitors will drive them out of business. This can lead to a game of chicken over who caps first, as seen in the EU’s current hesitation to move forward with a bold new climate plan.

Either way, that’s alot of carbon dioxide not being accounted for under Kyoto. And with growth in trade outpacing population growth and escalating consumerism, it’s set to continue unless nations own up to their emissions.

Olive Heffernan; Anna Barnett

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