Rethinking How to Split the Costs of Carbon

By EDUARDO PORTER, published in NYTimes- December 24, 2013

It is probably a safe bet that very few Americans unwrapping a brand-new iPhone left under their Christmas tree are thinking about its impact on the global climate. I have some good news for them, and some bad. No, Apple hasn’t managed to produce the device without adding heat-trapping carbon to the air. The company expects an iPhone 5s to inject 70 kilograms — about 154 pounds — of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere over its lifetime, 11 pounds less than the iPhone 5 that Apple introduced last year.

The “good” news is that under the standard accounting of carbon emissions bandied about at climate talks, it’s not, mostly, Americans’ fault. About three-quarters of the carbon dioxide is considered the responsibility of other people — in places like China and Taiwan, South Korea and Inner Mongolia — where the phone and its parts were made.

The bad news is not just that the effort to curb global warming is as stuck as ever, but that, whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together. The obstacles remain significant. Countless summit conferences since the Kyoto Protocol on climate change was adopted more than 15 years ago have failed to budge the fundamental roadblocks standing in the way of collective action: How should the costs be divided? Who did what to whom?

Globalization — which in the process of “exporting” production and jobs from rich to poor countries also “exported” the carbon dioxide emitted to make the products consumed by the rich countries — adds another complex twist to allocating responsibility for the carbon in the air. The disquieting question is this: Are emissions the responsibility of the countries that made them or of the countries for whom the products were made?

Two years ago, some of the greenest constituencies in the country asked Elizabeth Stanton and colleagues at the Stockholm Environment Institute-U.S. Center to perform a set of calculations on their carbon emissions. Rather than tally the carbon they produced, they wanted an inventory of the emissions generated in making, transporting, using and disposing of what they consumed.

They were in for a surprise. San Francisco, for example, generated only eight million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2008. The city’s consumption, by contrast, added nearly 22 million tons of carbon to the air. Using consumption-based measurements, Oregon’s emissions in 2005 jumped to 78 million tons from 53 million.

“The people who hired us to do it saw themselves as so green and innovative,” said Frank Ackerman, who led the Climate Economics Group at the center at the time and now works with Ms. Stanton at Synapse Energy Economics, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. “They thought that because they had nice initiatives going on they would come out lower, never mind the fact that a lot of the manufactures they consumed were made abroad.”

The focus on consumption makes sense. Understanding its impact on climate change is a necessary first step for families, and municipalities, to take concrete action to mitigate carbon emissions. This sort of recalculation, however, could have an unforeseen effect on the international politics of climate change by shifting responsibility on a global scale.

With the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air zooming last spring to its highest level since mastodons roamed the earth some three million years ago, the United Nations, against all odds, hopes 2014 will finally deliver the breakthroughs needed for the big carbon-spewing nations to agree on a plan by 2015.

“I challenge you to bring to the summit bold pledges,” urged the United Nations secretary Ban Ki-moon, as he invited global leaders to a nuts-and-bolts horse-trading meeting in New York next September.

The diplomacy of climate change appears as stuck as ever. Poor carbon-spewers like China justify their opposition to tight carbon limits on the grounds that, on a per-person basis, their emissions are still very low. Moreover, most of the carbon in the atmosphere now, they argue, was put there by Americans and other wealthy carbon-spewers, who burned a lot of fossil fuels on the way to getting rich. Forbidding the Chinese from doing the same would be tantamount to condemning them to stagnation.

Policy makers in Washington retort that while all this may be true, a deal that only required rich countries to limit emissions would be pointless: their carbon savings would be negated by growing emissions elsewhere. Heavy emitters of greenhouse gases — like the agriculture and chemical industry — would decamp from rich nations to the less carbon-restricted shores of the developing world.