Unclaimed Carbon

I already knew that national carbon accounting does not include the emissions embedded in imported goods. Those emissions are attributed to the country that produces the goods. Which is why many post-industrial countries can claim to have reduced emissions, while pointing accusing fingers at China and other emerging economies that now make all our stuff. What I didn’t know until Naomi Klein’s fantastic new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate enlightened me, is that the emissions from international shipping are not attributed to any country.

Massive container ship. Creative Commons copyright.

Massive container ship. Creative Commons copyright.

That’s right. No country in the world takes responsibility for them, not the exporting nor the importing nations.

Which is kind of a big deal, as according to this report by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), emissions from shipping make up 2.2% of the world’s total yearly emissions, which is roughly as much as one whole wealthy country such as Britain or Germany.

About 90% of traded goods are transported by ships. Which to be fair is a good thing, as shipping emissions are minuscule compared to air freight. But that doesn’t mean they’re minuscule compared to what they need to be to combat climate change. Far from it.

As we know, international trade is the lifeblood of the global economy, which is growing quickly. Without heavy regulation, emissions from shipping are set to rise 50-250% by 2050, depending on how quickly the economy grows. That is a terrifying prospect . Considering this bundle of unclaimed carbon is as big as that emitted by a whole developed country, and considering developed countries are supposed to be reducing emissions by 6-10% per year to keep us below 2C of warming.

The report by the ICS says the Kyoto Protocol is right to leave shipping emissions unaccounted for in national targets, because apparently shipping companies can assign themselves to whatever country they choose – and not all countries are (currently) bound to reduce their emissions. Although that could change after the UN Paris 2015 climate conference this December. The report also says that as of 2013 the industry is bound to a program of efficiency improvements, which shows the UN is at least starting to take notice of the issue. But efficiency is not enough, as economic growth will take precedence and swallow up gains.

According to Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate shipping traffic has increased by 400% in the last two decades, and is of course continuing to rise. She says the way it has been left out of national accounting is “a relic of the pre-free trade era”. It just doesn’t make sense in a time when everything we buy has travelled around the globe (sometimes more than once) to get to us.

If we’re not going to include emissions from shipping in our national accounts, then they need a special mention in whatever global binding deal gets drawn up to tackle climate change. They need to be capped, and they need to be reducing every year, not doubling or indeed increasing at all. That’s a tall order for a system that prizes free trade above all else.

But maybe we should be prizing the habitability of our planet above free trade?

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