Global carbon footprints

Methods and import/export corrected results from the Nordic countries in global carbon footprint studies

image of Global carbon footprints

There is increasing public, media and policy interest in the concepts of carbon footprints and the emissions associated with international trade. Many wonder if our growing consumption of imported products offsets our gains in climate policy. A variety of publications suggest that emission reductions in rich countries are offset by increased imports, i.e. our national carbon footprint is growing while our territorial emissions are getting smaller. Some refute this claim stating that the methods and data are unreliable, while others acknowledge the issue but argue it is not important for climate policy. This report aims to dispel some myths about carbon footprints and trade-adjusted emission inventories. A review of studies finds large variations between studies of the Nordic countries, but closer inspection shows that many of the variations are due to inconsistent definitions and non-comparable methods. Calculations using a consistent global model provide updated estimates for the Nordic countries in 1997, 2001, and 2004. A general observation for the Nordic countries is that the overall carbon footprint is larger than territorial based emissions, and that the difference is increasing. Further we also observe an increase in the total carbon footprint from 2001 to 2004. This stresses the need for policy makers to track the cause-effect chains between consumption and production to understand and mitigate potential carbon leakage. The study was carried out by researchers from CICERO and MiSA and was financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers.



Introduction and Background

A widely accepted and concrete definition of a carbon footprint does not exist. The term "footprint" in relation to indirect environmental effects was first coined by William Rees (Rees 1992) and then developed by Mathis Wackernagel in his PhD thesis (Wackernagel and Rees 1996). Wackernagel and Rees introduced the term "ecological footprint" as an aggregate measure of the total environmental impact of a product, service, nation or any other entity. The term "carbon footprint" is derived from this metaphor as well as other types of footprints such as "water footprint" or "energy footprint". The metaphor, however, does not provide any consistent definition of the term and leaves the computational aspects open with regards to system boundaries and methodology used to arrive at the footprint (Wiedmann and Minx 2008).


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