Carbon emissions: A dirty job, but someone’s got to do it

A very interesting graphic, explained below.

When developing countries got themselves exempted from the Kyoto protocol, the idea was to help them catch up to rich nations, which had benefited from centuries of extractive industrialization and carbon emissions, rather than penalizing them for coming late to the party. But what’s ended up happening (predictably) is that Kyoto-abiding developed countries are outsourcing their carbon emissions to the developing world — basically China and India.

The Centre for International Environment and Climate Research-Oslo just published a paper in PNAS (via The Economist) that quantifies what countries are exporting their carbon footprint, and which ones are importing. That is, which countries hire China et. al. to do the emitting, and which, like China, take on that task.

When you look at the original data, Latin America does not turn out the way you probably expect. Sure, Venezuela has heavy-oil upgraders that burn off tens of thousands of barrels a day of fuel on behalf of customers in the USA and elsewhere. Argentina has steel mills that turn ore into blocks of embedded energy for export. But neither of them makes the list of the biggest outsource carbon emitters, while Mexico, surprisingly, is up there on the list of the countries doing the outsourcing.

Hey look, some video I took of constant flaring at the heavy-oil upgraders in Jose, Venezuela, in April 2010. Sorry for the quality, I took it from a bus on the highway. Still a decent illustration of what this study is talking about.

The original paper is all about Kyoto, so it breaks down countries by whether or not they are bound by the treaty. I am going to ignore that; click to the original paper for all their full analysis. For me, the interesting part of the study is simply the geography. How do these things flow?

Most countries really don’t export or import much carbon footprint, so here is a table of the countries that either exported or imported more than 40 million tons worth of carbon emissions in 2008, the most recent year in the study:

Net carbon exports or imports, 2008, in millions of metric tons.

Net carbon exports or imports, 2008, in millions of metric tons. Click for clearer version.

Recognizing that the chart is pretty unreadable, here’s another version, with the US and China deleted.

Same thing, but without US and China. Click for clearer version.

Of course this is a bit deceptive, for several reasons. First, it’s not adjusted for GDP or population. If it were, obviously Venezuela would be a bigger importer of carbon footprint than India, for example, and as far as countries exporting their footprint, the US wouldn’t come off looking so bad. Second, it was 2008, which had record high prices and then a crash in commodities. So things look a bit weird. It’s a bit more illustrative to look at trends over time. Here we’re looking only at Latin America, because that’s all I care about. (Except gold.)

Latin America net carbon exports and imports over time, 1990-2008. Carbon emitters done on behalf of other countries are above the 0 line. Carbon outsourcers are below the line. Click for clearer version.

Again, pretty hard to read, so here it is again with the small countries close to the zero line eliminated. I cut out all countries that never exported nor imported more than 2 million tons of emissions in a year.

Major carbon emission exporters and importers in Latin America, 1990-2008. Countries emitting on behalf of someone else are above the line -- notably Venezuela. Countries that outsource emissions are below the line, especially Mexico. Click for clearer version.

This timeline raises a lot of questions. What happened in Argentina? What happened in Mexico? How can Chile be a net outsourcer of carbon emissions, despite burning lots of diesel and coal to keep the copper mills running? Will this information keep Venezuela from doing anything about its perverse fuel prices, which incentivize carbon emissions?

The original dataset, which can be downloaded from PNAS (heh heh, he said PNAS) has a lot more information in it that you might be able to mine. Let me know if you find any interesting tidbits in there, and I’ll post them.

One thought on “Carbon emissions: A dirty job, but someone’s got to do it

  1. Kepler

    Thought-provoking…but I wonder how reliable those statistics are for different countries in our messy continent where records belong to the realm of fantasy

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