One of Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions' Dirtiest Little Secrets

In shifting manufacturing from developed to developing nations we have shifted the carbon emissions but not the responsibility for those emissions.

Image credit: photowind/Shutterstock.com

As developed countries clean up their greenhouse gas emissions somewhat, developing countries often struggle to do the same. Why that is might surprise you.

If you are reading this, chances are you live and thrive in one of those developed countries. It just happens to be the nature of the demographic. You are literate and go online not just for entertainment but to learn, explore and maybe even make the world a better place. You may take pride in the steps that you (with your nearly 94% recycling target achieved and compost sorted), your community or your company have taken to reduce waste, make use of renewable energy resources and run a clean factory. You’re doing your part.

And the results look good. Your sector in the industry, or your city and perhaps even your whole country, is turning the corner on greenhouse gas emissions and waste.

It is also paying off economically, with energy beginning to cost less, as both your personal and corporate bottom lines see the benefits.

You should be proud, right? Unfortunately, the best answer to that is “not really.”

The reason things are not as good as they seem is that we human beings are remarkably good at solving problems in isolation from others – and remarkably bad at solving things that tie together as systems. Greenhouse gas emissions and the world that creates them represent such a system.

Your first clue to what’s really happening may in fact lie in the palm of your hands, starting with your smartphone.Smartphones, like most advanced electronics nowadays, are mostly made overseas in – yes – developing countries. The United States long ago gave up its mass manufacturing of most electronics subsystems and components and outsourced the production. Along with this came cries from politicians that we were giving up North American jobs, and although that’s true, it is almost missing two important points: A second category of things that moved out along with it was all the pollution and toxic waste associated with those factories, and a third category of things that was shipped overseas was worrying about the pollution and waste problems.

Where does all that go? The developing countries take the brunt of it all, and – somewhat paradoxically, to some – as their economies begin to thrive (in part because things are running more efficiently and cleaner), that just drives up production needs overseas. And those overseas production hubs have far fewer options (to date, at least) to power their factories to support their workers and the equipment that creates the subassemblies, crafts the metallic parts and molds the plastic as well as the mass-transit infrastructures built on a many-decades-old backbone.

Those developing countries, strapped for cash themselves, have the choice of investing in a more modern infrastructure or building more plants that can employ more of their own people. They choose the second option, more often than not.

One of the results of this involved symbiotic relationship is that several of the major third-world outsourcing locations – China and India – while growing rapidly economically, are also at positions #1 and #4 in the world now in terms of total global emissions.

The 2014 emissions rankings, drawn from data gathered by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, show China having produced 10.5 kilotons of CO2 emissions. The United States came in as a close #2 (something else not to be proud of) at 5.3 kilotons. The European Union was a strong third (so much for clean Europe) at 3.4 kilotons, and India rounded out the top four at 2.3 kilotons.

Clearly China is making up for lost time as an industrialized power. Its total carbon emissions are greater than the sum of the next two and just about equal to the sum of the next three national contributors in this list.

As to where China’s carbon emissions come from, as per a recent Harvard Kennedy School report, China’s Carbon Emissions Report 2015, some 90% is from combustion associated with greenhouse gases; the 10% balance that is left was generated by cement production. Applications to manufacturing and power generation together constituted 85% of China’s carbon emissions in 2012.

Of those greenhouse gas emissions produced directly by China’s manufacturing operations, one estimate suggests that as much as 15% of those emissions are directly tied to the export of products out of the country – meaning on their way to some of those developing countries. That 15% estimate comes from a late 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So at least 15% of those emissions can be directly tied to consumption-driven pollution that developing countries (mostly, at least) are responsible for driving directly from within countries like China. At the same time, manufacturing does not exist in a vacuum, so the associated energy costs to provide for food, housing, transportation, telecommunications and other support infrastructure for the people doing the work are also part of the greenhouse gas emissions problem driven by these same production requirements – although indirectly so. Also, equipment and subsystem/component suppliers from within the country itself are for the most part only counted as internal consumption. All of which means there is a lot more than 15% of those emissions probably easily counted as being tied to the countries actually purchasing the goods for final sale.

If that were not enough to give one pause, an even more recent article, “Global climate forcing of aerosols embodied in international trade,” published this September in Nature Geoscience, suggests even more linkages between third-world-nation polluting and first-world-nation consumption. Based on the research of Dr. Yi Huang, an atmospheric scientist at Canada’s McGill University, the study shows what Dr. Huang referred to as “a strong, yet little-realized link among consumption, trade and environmental and climate consequences.”

The study put together by Huang and his colleagues looked specifically at production-related pollution related to aerosols in the atmosphere. These aerosols – which are not generally categorized as greenhouse gas emissions – scatter and/or absorb solar radiation, a scientific process known as “radiative forcing.” Black carbon based aerosols, the bulk of the aerosol emissions types, have a warming effect. But even without being explicitly greenhouse gas related emitters, these aerosol pollutants have much of the same effect: they make the world a hotter place to be.

All of this data demonstrates what is obvious in retrospect: that the developed countries, far from being leaders in greenhouse gas emissions reductions, could far more rightly be considered leaders in exporting greenhouse gas emissions out of their countries and on to developing countries where the actual production associated with the very high-tech goods many of us enjoy and like – from large-screen LCD displays to printers to cars, smartphones and more – is happening.

Even worse, by driving the demand for the very goods now being manufactured overseas, we have now established a global economic model that (currently, at least) depends on increasing greenhouse gas emissions just to keep up.

True leadership in driving greenhouse gas reductions and environmental waste creation will only come when all parties at both tables, developing as well as developed countries, take responsibility for thinking of this as an integrated system – a system where both parties have to contribute to the solution rather than one where we in the developed countries just dump our dirty production and waste on the rest of the world to be dealt with.