What’s the Embodied Carbon in the U.S.-China Trade?

Authors: Ali Hasanbeigi, Daniel Moran

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President Donald Trump has just signed an executive order to levy tariffs on a wide range of Chinese products worth an estimated $50 billion. This will certainly have major trade implications not only between China and the U.S., but globally. Perhaps, that’s why a major sell-off is happening in global stock markets. We thought to take this opportunity to look at it from climate change perspective. Do you know what’s the embodied carbon in the trade between the U.S. and China?

In our recent study on Embodied Carbon in Globally Traded Goods funded by the ClimateWorks Foundation, Global Efficiency Intelligence, LLC. and KGM & Associate Ltd. used the most recent available data and a cutting-edge model (Eora MRIO) to conduct a global assessment of the extent of the embodied carbon in globally traded goods, so-called carbon loophole.

The graph below highlights our finding related to embodied carbon in the trade between U.S. and China in 2015. As it is illustrated, the embodied carbon in goods that U.S. imports from China is around 502 million ton of CO2, while the embodied carbon in goods China imports from the U.S. is around 67 million ton of CO2. Therefore, the net import of embodied carbon by the U.S. from China is around 435 million ton of CO2.

To put this number in perspective, the entire GHG emissions in California (the 5th largest economy in the world) in 2015 was 440 million ton of CO2.

Source: KGM & Associate and Global Efficiency Intelligence analysis   Figure. Embodied Carbon in the U.S.-China Trade in 2015 (Million ton CO2)

Source: KGM & Associate and Global Efficiency Intelligence analysis

Figure. Embodied Carbon in the U.S.-China Trade in 2015 (Million ton CO2)

It is hard, however, to quantify the carbon implication of this new U.S. tariff on imports from China without knowing the exact list of products affected and how the tariff will change the trade balance between the U.S. and China.

A tool like the U.S. tariff on imports could be good for the climate and the economy if it was based on the carbon footprint of the goods imported and was not just implemented as a blanket tariff. In fact, California recently passed the Buy Clean legislation (AB 262), which calls for the state to create rules for the procurement of infrastructure materials (steel, glass, etc.) purchased with state funds that take into account pollution levels during production. This could be an example of environmental- and climate-friendly procurement and trade tariffs that level the playing field and can benefit both industry and the environment and incentivize high polluting companies that are out-of-state or out-of-country to clean up their production in order to be able to trade with these states or countries.

Our study on Embodied Carbon of Globally Traded Goods which includes results for trade between other countries and regions of the world will be published in April 2018.

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