Carbon on the Go

Winter                                                                  Seed Catalog Moon

This am in the climate change mooc listening to lectures about the international policy dimensions.  Boy, there are very real dilemmas.  Let me mention just one.  Coal.  To get emissions down coal use has to drop and drop a lot.  But.  Energy use in a nation has a linear relationship to the country’s wealth.  So.  If country A significantly reduces its coal consumption, two things follow.  1.  It will have to use a lot more of some other kind of energy unless it wants to beggar its citizenry.  2.  Country B, perhaps with less financial resources, now discovers that a lot of coal is available, cheaper than ever since one larger user has stopped or greatly diminished its use.  Result?  Country B buys the coal and uses it to generate electricity, thus increasing both its wealth and its emissions.  Hmmm.

There’s a knock-on here that amplifies the problem, embodied emissions.  Sounds like a horror movie premise and that’s not far off.  An embodied emission is when one country produces a product using a polluting energy source, say coal, but instead of consuming the product sells it on the global market.  Which country is responsible for the emissions?  The producer or the consumer.  That’s an embodied emission, when the product you consume sent up its production emissions in another country.

(international movement of coal)

Guess where that happens a lot?  Yep, China exporting to U.S.  So, while our emissions have fallen modestly thanks to first the 2008 great recession then the increasing use of natural gas, China’s been scarfing down coal reserves, many from Australia, then selling the furniture, electronics, appliances here in the U.S.

Embodied emissions have become a big problem since 1990.  Over that time international shipping has undergone a remarkable transformation lowering, then lowering again, the price of shipping even bulk goods like coal and, then, the products created by its use.

The solution to this happens to be simple but politically very unpalatable:  border tariffs. Tariffs are a big no-no to free market ideologues and they do raise the specter of tariffs used as weapons not just to balance the embodied emission problem.  Makes my head ache.

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