Rich countries are reducing their emissions—by exporting them to China

Emissions geekery.
Emissions geekery.
Image: AP Photo/Gregory Bull
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Historical greenhouse-gas emissions data make clear that much of the burden of climate change lies with rich countries. The US, the UK, Germany, and others built their economies burning fossil fuels without thinking about the consequences. The unwillingness of wealthy states to take historical responsibility for climate change is one reason it took more than 20 years of negotiations before 195 countries could agree to sign the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

One argument rich countries tend to make for not giving too many concessions to climate change mitigation: over the past two decades, the numbers show they’ve been reducing their emissions while poor countries are not. But behind those numbers lies an ugly truth.

Much of the emissions reductions in rich countries have happened simply because they’ve exported them to poor countries. When China produces phones, toys, or clothes, the resulting emissions get added to China’s account even if the product is consumed in the US, UK, or Germany.

We looked at fuel consumption data from the International Energy Agency, and used it to approximate each country’s industrial emissions. It tells a story of a changing global economy—and the shifting of the burden of greenhouse-gas emissions that helped that economy stay afloat.

Read about the challenges and opportunities of climate action in our series The Race to Zero Emissions. You can sign up to our newsletter, too.