June 26, 2009 A first-ever analysis and comparison of the carbon footprints of different countries using a single, trade-linked model has been created by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and the Centre of International Climate and Environment Research - Oslo (CICERO).
“We are trying to help come up with a better framework for mitigation actions, and to point out that we really need to take emissions from trade into account”, says Edgar Hertwich, professor of Energy and Process Engineering at NTNU, and director of the university's Industrial Ecology Programme, who co-authored a paper about the analysis with Glen Peters, a senior scientist at CICERO. The online preprint of the publication in Environmental Science and Technology, a peer-reviewed publication from the American Chemical Society, was made available on June 15.
Not surprisingly, the comparison shows that the higher a country’s per capita consumption expenditures are, the bigger its carbon footprint. The national average per capita footprints varied from 1 ton of carbon dioxide equivalents per year in African countries such as Malawi and Mozambique, to roughly 30 tons per year in industrialized countries such as the USA and Luxembourg.
The authors also found that food and services are a bigger contributor to the carbon footprint in countries with lower incomes, while mobility – travel -- and the consumption of manufactured goods result in the greatest greenhouse gas emissions in countries with higher expenditures.
One of the key aspects of the researchers’ work is that it assigns the global carbon footprint from imports to the country that imports the goods – not the country that manufactures the goods. This approach is especially critical because globalized production chains allow companies to outsource the manufacturing of carbon-intensive products, thus hiding the real carbon costs of imported goods.
“The danger is that if some countries have tight carbon emission limits, they can just outsource production to countries where the emission limits are not so restrictive”, Hertwich says. Thus, Hertwich and Peters’ accounting method enables policymakers to understand the carbon footprint of imported products for possible regulation.
Their website, http://carbonfootprintofnations.com, allows users to check the importance of different consumption categories for each nation and details the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the final consumption of goods from 73 nations and 14 world regions. The baseline dataset is from 2001.
The general scientific consensus is that global per capita emission levels must drop to just 1 ton per person by 2050 to limit global warming to 2 degrees C. However, the researchers’ analysis shows that only a few poor countries currently have emission levels this low. In fact, for most countries, the production of food alone accounts for 1 ton per capita.
Hertwich says this shortfall is an important reason why analyses like carbonfootprintofnations.com are needed.
“Clearly, this is a problem” he says. “But our analysis adds insight into what we use the emissions for, and how they are linked to global production networks and consumption patterns. This knowledge is a prerequisite for choosing the right issues to focus on.”
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The above story is based on materials provided by The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).
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