The Myth of North American Carbon Reduction Laggards

Publication, Climate, Ben Eisen


The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an international environmental treaty, the objective of which is to stabilize the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere in order to reduce the likelihood of dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The Protocol was adopted in 1997 and set GHG emissions reductions targets for 40 countries including 26 developed countries and 14 countries designated “economies in transition” (EIT).

The 14 EITs are Eastern and Central European countries that had formerly been in the economic orbit of the Soviet Union. The targets assigned to those countries were largely symbolic, as most saw their industrial economies collapse in the early 1990s, which resulted in large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions between the treaty’s baseline date (1990) and the signing of Kyoto. Kyoto targets for the EITs exceeded expected emissions under “business as usual” projections at the time, and it was therefore widely understood that the Eastern European EIT participants would likely be able to meet their Kyoto targets without any conscious effort at emissions reduction.1 Since Kyoto was signed, Turkey has been designated as an EIT, and does not have a binding Kyoto target.

This left the 26 remaining Annex l parties as the only countries for which the Kyoto Protocol set meaningful emissions reductions targets.2 This policy study will examine the performance of the 26 economically developed Annex l countries3 in terms of GHG reductions since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. More specifically, it will offer a reassessment of the performance of the two North American Annex l countries— Canada and the United States—relative to comparably affluent European countries.

In sections two and three of this paper, we examine economic and demographic factors that complicate the simplistic narrative of poor North American performance compare with other affluent countries. Although critics of recent and existing Canadian and U.S. governments have suggested that these countries’ increases in total emissions are due primarily to poor environmental policy or a lack of environmental virtue, we will show that GHG emissions growth in developed countries has largely been a function of population and economic growth. The emissions reductions record of both North American countries, and especially the United States, compares favourably with most other developed Annex l countries with comparable growth rates.

In section four, we examine the phenomenon of affluent countries “outsourcing” GHG emissions to developing countries. The most frequently used accounting system for national GHG emissions assigns emissions to the country where these emissions actually occur, without reference to the fact that the goods produced during the generation of these emissions are often consumed in another country. Under current accounting rules, countries can appear to be reducing their emissions when they import a large number of the carbon-intensive products that they consume rather than produce them domestically. We show that when we use a consumption-based accounting method that assigns emissions based on which country consumes carbon-intensive goods, the apparent performance gap between North America and Europe becomes even smaller.


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