Global Trade’s Dirty Secret: Outsourced Emissions

The Carnegie Institution of Science released a new study this week finding that one-third of the carbon dioxide emissions developed countries release into the atmosphere result from goods and services produced outside their borders.  The report’s details are troubling:  Carnegie’s researchers estimate that 2.5 tons of CO2 per person are consumed in the United States but are produced elsewhere, and that figure spikes to 4 tons per European.  Another point that will cause considerable disagreement among global climate negotiators is Carnegie’s analysis that one-quarter of the emissions in China are actually the result of its exports to its trading partners such as the United States.

Emerging economic powers such India and China on one side, and the United States and Western Europe on the other, are finding difficulty reaching any middle ground over who is responsible for increased emissions–and who will pay for such measures.  Chinese and Indian leaders will argue that it is hypocritical for industrialized nations to insist that the Chinese and Indians invest their limited resources into decreasing emissions and greenhouse gases.  If the United States, Europe, and Japan have enjoyed increased wealth over the past century because of industrialization, why should developing countries deny economic opportunity for their citizens?

An opposing argument, however, is that as people in the developing world become affluent, drive more cars, purchase more goods, and eat more meat, the pace of global consumption is on a course that ultimately will prove unsustainable.  So should wealthy nations pay for the cost of reducing CO2 emissions and other threats to the earth’s atmosphere?  Or is the real lesson learned is that consumers in industrialized nations should change their habits, consume less, and buy locally?

It is troubling to think that nations can simply “outsource” their emissions, which in the case of the USA is 11%, and tiny Switzerland, a staggering 50%; and then, point to China as the culprit.  Nevertheless, one aspect of the debate often falls under the radar.  While activists and, increasingly,  consumers demand more locally produced goods and services, such clamor ignores the fact that many jobs around the world rely on international trade.  Los Angeles, for example, is famous for its entertainment industry, but the city’s largest employer and wealth generator are logistics and trade.  But as a result, the fuels required to ship goods across the oceans, and then to haul them by trucks once they reach their destination, are polluting.  Governments, industry, and activists continuously disagree on what is needed to clean the ports in Los Angeles and nearby Long Beach.

So if trade is the cause of such a large proportion of global emissions, why not address the problem at its source?  Maersk, the world’s largest shipping and logistics company, is partnering with Lloyd’s Register and the Dutch government to test biodiesel in its engines over the next two years.  Maersk’s biodiesel pilot program is modest:  the fuel tested is a blend of 5 to 7 percent of FAME, or fatty acid methyl esters.  Maersk will not only test the performance of this blend, but will evaluate storage issues as well.  Meanwhile, LA Ports is introducing more biodiesel and electric trucks at its facilities, which in the long run could reduce emissions and reliance on imported fossil based fuels in California and the United States.

Encouraging shipping companies to explore alternative fuel options does not receive the hype and attention in which hybrid and electric cars bask.  But with our planet’s future and jobs hanging in the balance, the development of alternative fuels for the transportation behind international trade perhaps deserves more research and a sense of urgency.


Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, Contact him at You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.