U.S. Trade with Countries like China May Impact Future Global Climate Policy

Increasing U.S. trade with countries like China has major consequences for the future of global climate policy, argue Carnegie Mellon University engineering researchers Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews.

In a research paper published on June 13 on the Web site of the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the Carnegie Mellon researchers describe how the United States has reduced its increasing carbon emissions by importing more carbon-intensive goods from other countries.

For example, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated from making a desktop computer in China could be up to three times higher than when the same desktop computer is made in the United States, according to the Carnegie Mellon study. In total, the authors estimate that CO2 emissions associated with imports rose from 12 percent of total U.S. emissions in 1997 to 22 percent in 2004, a substantial increase given that the U.S. already emits around 25 percent of the world's total global carbon dioxide.

"These emissions are only going to increase as the United States continues to consume more and more essential goods from outside its borders," said Matthews, an associate professor in the departments of civil and environmental engineering and engineering and public policy. Because the United States continues to import more goods from carbon-intensive trading partners, the researchers conclude this trend is likely to continue in the short term, without major efforts toward efficiency gains and cleaner development in the emerging industrial economies. Weber and Matthews urge the United States and other developed countries to agree to further reduction of greenhouse gases.

As global trade continues to expand, issues of trade and emissions will continue to grow in importance. Many researchers have questioned how emissions associated with traded goods should be accounted for.

"The central question is one of responsibility," said Weber, a graduate researcher in the departments of civil and environmental engineering and engineering and public policy. "Over the last decade, the United States' share of global carbon emissions has gone down and China's has gone up. However, if you count not by who makes the goods, but by who consumes the goods, the United States' share of responsibility has stayed constant or even gone up. However, these emissions are not counted because they've been outsourced to other countries."

H. Scott Matthews: http://www.ce.cmu.edu/~hsm

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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