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Footprints of Nations: No more hiding outsourced carbon

earth-3dHow do the world’s different countries compare by carbon footprint? A new analysis available online — Carbon Footprints of Nations — presents such data in an interactive for the first time.

The analysis was developed by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and the Centre of International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo (CICERO).

“We are trying to help come up with a better framework for mitigation actions, and to point out that we really need to take emissions from trade into account,” said Edgar Hertwich, professor of energy and process engineering at NTNU and director of the university’s Industrial Ecology Programme, who co-authored a paper about the analysis with Glen Peters, a senior scientist at CICERO.

Not surprisingly, the comparison shows that, the higher a country’s per capita consumption expenditures are, the bigger its carbon footprint. The national average per capita footprints varied from 1 tonne of carbon dioxide equivalents per year in African countries such as Malawi and Mozambique, to roughly 30 tonnes per year in industrialised nations such as the US and Luxembourg.

The researchers also found that food and services are a bigger contributor to the carbon footprint in countries with lower incomes, while transport and the consumption of manufactured goods result in the greatest greenhouse gas emissions in countries with higher expenditures.

One unique factor of the new analysis is that it assigns the global carbon footprint from imports to the country that imports the goods — not the country that manufactures the goods. This approach is especially critical because globalised production chains allow companies to outsource the manufacturing of carbon-intensive products, thus hiding the real carbon costs of imported goods.

“The danger is that if some countries have tight carbon emission limits, they can just outsource production to countries where the emission limits are not so restrictive,” said Hertwich.

The general scientific consensus is that global per capita emission levels must drop to just 1 tonne per person by 2050 to limit global warming to 2 degrees C. However, the researchers’ analysis shows that only a few poor countries currently have emission levels this low. In fact, for most countries, the production of food alone accounts for 1 tonne per capita.

“Clearly, this is a problem,” Hertwich said. “But our analysis adds insight into what we use the emissions for, and how they are linked to global production networks and consumption patterns. This knowledge is a prerequisite for choosing the right issues to focus on.”


  • Greenbang
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Hi Greg,

    A study published in Nature this year concluded we have to keep total global carbon dioxide emissions to 1 trillion tonnes or less between 2000 and 2050.

    You’ll find the study here:

  • greg
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 11:39 am

    The general scientific consensus is that global per capita emission levels must drop to just 1 tonne per person by 2050 to limit global warming to 2 degrees C.

    where is this consensus stated or reported? i’d be interested in being able to quote evidence


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