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Shipping produces 1.12 billion tonnes of CO2- twice aviation’s footprint 15.02.08

On a boat from China

As the industrial workshops of the world move from Western Europe and America to China and Asia shipping levels have reached an all time high. Aviation is often seen as the bad boys of carbon emissions, the new UN report however shows it is that shipping which is really is the elephant in the room. It is time we take responsibility for our international carbon footprint argues Peter Shield.

The UN figures, recently revealed through a leak to The Guardian, show that the global merchant fleets, previously thought by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to have an annual emissions level of 400 million tonnes, has in reality a footprint of 1.12 billion tonnes. Further more this is expected to rise by 30% by 2020 to 1.475 billion tonnes. The heavily pressured aviation industry, while fast growing, is estimated at having a global footprint of around 650 million tonnes.

These figures, collected by a commissioned group of scientists from the oil and shipping industry for the International Marine Organisation, show the folly of excluding shipping and aviation from Kyoto calculations. It is true that working out a robust assessment and qualification scheme for both aviation and shipping is not the simplest thing in the world, however the inclusion of aviation, but not shipping, into the European Carbon Trading system may finally show one method to do it. Shipping is a little more difficult, but not impossible. While the vast container fleets that sail the world do stop in a number of places to unload while on route, and the goods unloaded at say Rotterdam Europort are then loaded onto lorries and spread to the wind the ships themselves are packed in very precise ways and detailed inventories are kept on the final destination of each container. The records of the fleet operators combined with the records of the national Customs and Excise between them have sufficient detailed records to make the calculations of which country the final destination for the goods. From that it is possible to calculate the share of the shipping emissions each country should take responsibility for.

They also point to another major failing of the way carbon emissions targets are calculated. At the moment a countries carbon emissions are calculated by working out the green house gas emissions are produced by a country, not calculating the carbon emissions of goods and services consumed by each country.

The outsourcing of ‘dirty’ production, manufacturing in essence and all the demands on power the factories require, to China and Asia have seen fast rising emission levels in particular in China and India. However roughly quarter of the goods produced are then packed in containers and shipped to be consumed out of country(23% for 2004 estimate the Tyndall Centre). In 2007 China is estimated as having a total export value of 1.221 trillion dollars, its main exports are machinery, electrical products, data processing equipment, apparel, textile, steel, mobile phones. In 2006 its major export destinations were US 21%, Hong Kong 16% (Though how much was then re-exported to third parties is unknown), Japan 9.5%, South Korea 4.6%, Germany 4.2%.

The UK’s trade deficit with China alone has risen from £2.3 billion in 1999 to £12.3 billion in 2006, it may be as large as £16 billion for 2007 according to figures from the Tyndall Centre.

UK’s trade deficit with China © Chris Goodall

In terms of imports from China this represents around £15.6 billion, the UK exported £3.3 billion to China that year. Chinese production is at moment much dirtier than in the UK. In a briefing paper, ‘Who Owns China’s Emissions?’ the Tyndall Centre calculate that per billion pounds of products Chinese industry emits 5 million tonnes of CO2, this means that the total emissions of the Chinese imports were 78.2 million tonnes of CO2- making up 121% of the total emissions of the UK if they were to be included in the UK’s figures.

The goods exported to China by the UK ha d a footprint of 1.35 million tonnes of CO2 per billion pounds of goods. That would mean that if the goods had been produced in the UK at such efficiency then the footprint would have been 21.06 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. It is unlikely that the domestic UK production would have been as low as 1.35 million tonnes per billion, after all there is a big difference between producing high tech goods and steel. So it is probably more accurate to follow the equations worked out by Chris Goodall on his Climate Commentary article, Chris estimates that the carbon footprint of domestically produced alternatives would have been roughly half that of the Chinese, say 2.5 million tonnes of C02 per billion. This would mean that the carbon emissions of replacing the imported goods with domestically produced ones would have been 39 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.

That would add 6% to the UK’s total emissions, putting the UK way over our Kyoto targets- and that is without including the carbon emissions of the shipping.

At the moment carbon agreements are negotiated between national states and are calculated in terms of the domestic carbon footprint, however due to the structure of world trade a country’s carbon footprint is international.

What is clear from both the leaked UN report and the Tyndall centre report on trade with China is that the present method of calculating a nation’s carbon emissions are woefully inadequate, a country cannot really be said to moving to a sustainable economy while it remains dependent on shipping in carbon emission intense goods from the developing, majority world.

Peter Shield

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Related links

Tyndall Centre- Who owns China’s Emissions? (PDF)

True scale of C0₂emissions from shipping revealed- Guardian article

China is keeping the UK within the Kyoto limits -Chris Goodall’s article

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