Growing carbon emissions are a clear issue in today’s world, but the problem seems to be worsening more quickly than previously anticipated. According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases grew more in the beginning of the past decade than in the three preceding decades.
To this point, President Obama warned in a report for The New Yorker that the United States will be “four feet under water” if India and China, which have a cumulative population of over 2.5 billion people, follow the consumptive habits of Americans.
As India and China amass more wealth, it is foreseeable that the citizens of these nations will continue to mimic American lifestyles, which imply a more massive carbon footprint; however, this is not the only issue. The per capita greenhouse gas emissions for the citizens of China and India actually fall far below those of their European and American counterparts. Consequently, reducing individual energy usage in these countries will not be the only step necessary to significantly lower emissions.
The principal issue arises from coal usage in factories that produce goods like electronics and inexpensive clothing—items that are exported from China and India to the West.
For China and other “rising economies,” carbon dioxide emissions total nearly 14 gigatonnes, nearly double the rate of emissions in 2000. Approximately 14% of these were produced as a result of manufacturing exported goods.
"A growing share of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in developing countries is released in the production of goods and services exported, notably from upper-middle-income countries to high-income countries," says the IPCC report.
The issue comes from a general disconnect between what wealthier western nations consume and where these products come from.
Americans and citizens of other high-income countries often do not reflect upon the real cost behind the cheap goods they purchase.
"We need to understand the full life cycle of all the goods and services that we are purchasing and selling,” says Cynthia Cummis, an expert on greenhouse gas accounting at the World Resources Institute. According to her, using a national inventory “is just not telling the full picture of our impacts.” The resulting carbon emissions clearly extend beyond national borders.
A study from U.C. Irvine illustrated this in a study that found that Los Angeles “experiences at least one extra day a year of smog that exceeds federal ozone limits because of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide emitted by Chinese factories making goods for export.”
These factories rely heavily on black carbon, which leaves many contaminants in the atmosphere that are not easily washed away by rain. The contaminants travel long distances where they are deposited in California and other western states and contribute up to one-fourth of the sulfate pollution on some days.
The smog and soot also contribute to a slew of health issues, including asthma, heart disease and emphysema. It appears that by exporting manufacturing processes to produce cheaper goods abroad, Americans are hurting themselves in the end.
Although this information seems to cast a dark cloud over the future, it should be taken as a warning. As younger citizens come to power, it is their responsibility to find alternative solutions that will make future manufacturing practices more sustainable and the public more conscious of the relationship between importing cheap products from rising economies and greenhouse gases.