Part One: Dirty Dishes in the Atmosphere: Carbon Accounting & Climate Justice

2022-08-19

 |  Making a Difference

Part One: What is Carbon Accounting?

The term “carbon accounting” has a rather mundane ring to it. It brings to mind spreadsheets, maybe a pale graph, and obtuse calculations made by a weary clerk in a cubicle. But what sounds both boring and procedural is actually highly contentious, political, and essential when it comes to addressing both climate change and climate justice.

This article is Part One  of a two-part series that interrogates how carbon emissions responsibility is determined, or “accounted” for, and how this is connected to climate justice. Stay tuned for Part Two on climate justice and carbon accounting.

Ok…so what is carbon accounting?

Carbon accounting is the process of deciding who – what government, company, and/or person – is responsible for the carbon emissions that cause climate change. It asks, who is emitting this carbon? And more importantly, who is responsible for lowering or stopping these emissions? If we want to address climate change – and believe me, we are already decades behind – we need to decide who does what, NOW.

Who does the dishes? An example.

In case invisible carbon emissions in the vastness of atmospheric space are too abstract for you, here’s a far-too relevant metaphor from my own life. My three roommates and I share a cramped but cozy kitchen. We all love to cook, and delight in eating even more, so we generate a lot of dirty dishes (in this analogy, dirty dishes represent carbon emissions). At the end of the day, our tiny sink is full of dishes, just as our atmosphere is FULL of carbon emissions. Who has to clean them all? Does one person have to wash all the dishes, which they didn’t get dirty? Or maybe my roommate comes home at the end of the day and finds hundreds of dirty dishes she didn’t even use – should she have to clean them all herself? Who should do the dishes – or getting back to carbon accounting – which country should reduce their carbon emissions? And how soon, and by how much?

A photo I took during the 2021 Climate March in Glasgow during COP26 – with the most simple math we need to understand the climate crisis: “Planet B = 0.” (Photo by Eden Luymes)

So who decides then?

Currently, the organization that decides what emissions a country or state is responsible for is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat – more often called the UNFCCC. This is a body that, in their own words, “is the United Nations entity tasked with supporting the global response to the threat of climate change” (https://unfccc.int/about-us/about-the-secretariat).  The UNFCCC is the Convention that nearly every country in the world, with 197 Parties signed to it, agreed to to help address climate change. It is also the parent treaty to the Paris Agreement, which is the most recent climate change treaty aiming to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

How are emissions accounted for currently?

Under the Paris Agreement, as decided by the UNFCCC, carbon emissions are currently attributed to countries based on where the emissions occurred. This is called territorial or production-based accounting (PBA). Simply it means that a country is only responsible for the emissions that physically occur within its territorial borders. To link back to our dirty dishes analogy, this would mean that I only have to wash the dishes I used to make my own meal.

Seems pretty straightforward – the country that makes the emissions in their territory should be responsible for them. Case closed. Let the spreadsheet and the weary clerk do their  work in peace.

Except it’s not that simple.

We live in a globalized world. We traded $54,622,167,000,000 (USD) (that’s $54 trillion with a T) in merchandise in 2020 (https://stats.wto.org/), shipping goods and services across oceans, flying through the skies, crossing a myriad of borders, trading and travelling in complex interconnected webs. The nature of global capitalism is that it transcends borders; irreverently spewing carbon emissions at all stages of the global supply chain of any good or product. And supply chains are obscure and complicated. As a result, tracking carbon emissions and deciding who is responsible for them is a complicated task, and fraught with ethical assumptions.

A large number of shipping containers in a busy cargo port. Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

The reality is that carbon emissions transcend both time and space. The activities we do that emit carbon are not neatly contained within the borders of Canada, or any other country, but rather occur across time and space.

Photo: A cargo ship leaves Vancouver, bound for a voyage across the Pacific Ocean

So what are some other ways to account for carbon?

Besides the production-based accounting (PBA) approach that is currently used by the United Nations, what are some other ways we might think about carbon accountability in the context of global capitalism? One alternative accounting method people have put forward is consumption-based accounting (CBA). This method attributes carbon responsibility to the final consumer of a good. If you purchase an iPhone, for example, it means that all the emissions associated with the production of this iPhone – mining the necessary materials, different stages of industrial production, emissions from shipping across different countries, and more – are the responsibility of the final consumer (aka the person who bought the iPhone). This accounting method does a good job of addressing the high-emissions consumer culture in the most wealthy, “developed” nations like Canada and the United States. It looks beyond borders and across supply chains to see who really is driving emissions through consumerism.Another angle to look at emissions accounting from is income-based accounting (IBA). This approach identifies who is funding and profiting off of carbon emissions. For example, if a Canadian oil company sells their oil to another country where it is then burned, Canada and that fossil fuel company would still be responsible for those emissions because they are the ones funding and profiting off of the sale of that oil, even if it is burned elsewhere. This approach does a good job of looking at who is profiting off of emissions, and calling them out as responsible in spite of where the carbon is finally emitted.

One last approach we might consider is per-capita emissions, also known as emissions per person. This approach takes the population size of a country into account. For example, Canada emits much less carbon in total than countries like the United States, China or India, but these other countries also have some of the largest populations in the world. Canada’s emissions per-capita were 14.2 tonnes CO2 in 2020, while China’s were only 7.41 tonnes CO2, and India’s emissions per capita were a fraction of Canada’s, at 1.55 tonnes CO2 per person (https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/co-emissions-per-capita). If we look at emissions per-capita we can see how big of an impact our individual carbon footprints are in Canada compared to other more populous counties. This draws attention and responsibility to our highly destructive and emissions-intensive lifestyles in North America.

Map: This map shows CO2 emissions per capita (or emissions per person) (Source: Our World in Data https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/co-emissions-per-capita)

But why does carbon responsibility matter?

Ultimately, these different accounting methods are just different ways of looking at who is responsible for the carbon we all emit into the atmosphere. But why does this responsibility matter? Emissions all have the same impact, no matter who makes them, right? Technically, yes, but if we care about fairness, equity, and justice, then determining carbon responsibility matters a whole lot. Why should a country with a huge population that produces consumer goods for the rest of the world to buy be responsible for the emissions caused by consumerist lifestyles on the other side of the world? Or how can a country like Canada increase their oil and gas production for profit and not be responsible for any of the emissions from these products once they are shipped overseas? These questions of equity are essential – and in the second article of this series I will attempt to answer them. I will unpack what climate justice means, and how carbon accounting and climate justice are deeply related. Climate justice doesn’t just ask, who does the dishes?  — it asks who should do the dishes.

References

https://unfccc.int/about-us/about-the-secretariat

https://stats.wto.org/

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/share-co2-embedded-in-trade

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/co-emissions-per-capita

Photos:

Cargo ship leaving Vancouver – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cargo_ship_exiting_Vancouver%27s_harbour.jpg

Dirty dishes – https://www.flickr.com/photos/190784293@N05/50862598962

Containers – https://www.rawpixel.com/image/3282490/free-photo-image-aerial-view-import-drone

Tar sands – https://www.flickr.com/photos/kirbyurner/18383964453

TMX – https://www.flickr.com/photos/adam_jones/50357022238 

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