Outsourcing Emissions: Assigning Responsibility & COP15

03/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A remarkable study to be published in Geophysical Research Letters reports that fully half of China's recent increase in CO2 emissions can be attributed to demand for manufactured goods from western developed countries. Of China's total emissions, one-third are attributed to the insatiable demand for cheap exports from the west. Not only the conclusions, but the timing of the report is important as the focus of attention moves to the COP15 conference in Copenhagen this December 2009. It is there where a critical agreement to follow the Kyoto Protocol will be finalized.

Many of the world's leading scientists are warning that we are already in the red tape in terms of reaching greenhouse gas concentrations in the Earth's atmosphere where catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable. If glacier and polar melting, ocean acidification and over 200 dead zones, deforestation, drought, sea level rise, unprecedented fires and species extinction were not enough; it has now been conclusively proven that the climate change effects of CO2 concentrations are irreversible for over 1000 years after emissions stop by Susan Solomon of the NOAA Earth Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. Failure to act now will result in consequences which will exceed quantification.

The United States of course refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocols. Since Kyoto in 1997, global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities have increased substantially and continue to accelerate. By any measure, Kyoto was a failure. Per capita, the US remains firmly in the lead in producing greenhouse gas emissions. For total CO2 output, China moved into first place last year as it continues to bring additional coal-fired power plants on-line to meet increasing demand for exports to the developed world. In the past, the US has used the rather worn and ultimately self-defeating argument that it could not be party to any international agreements without equal obligations on developing nations, particularly China and India. That this is blatantly inequitable as the bulk of the emissions already in the atmosphere have originated in the west has previously been shrugged off by US negotiators as irrelevant.

The new study by Oslo's Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research, creates both potential and hazard as the world prepares for Copenhagen. The Chinese are in a stronger position to shift the blame for their increased emissions back to the west where the demand for products has led directly to the increase in manufacturing capacity and energy consumption. Negotiating an agreement which has teeth enough to actually reduce CO2 levels is now absolutely imperative. Whereas before the responsibility for emissions were assigned to the country where they were produced, it is now likely that a formula will be adopted to allocate responsibility and cost to the country consuming the goods. Such a formula would be more fair in assigning the costs of carbon taxes or cap and trade values to the responsible party. That an agreement to reduce CO2 concentration levels must be reached is critical to the survival of human civilization as we know it.

Next month the first of many dominoes to fall this year leading up to COP15 will be at the emergency International Conference on Climate Change March 10-12 in Copenhagen. The conference is being held to append the IPCC reports (AR4-2007) with updated information and with the express goal of not only providing policy makers with data, but further with influencing policy directly. Every citizen of every UN member state should let their government and policy makers know that this issue is important to them.

Do it today.