Responsibility for CO2 emissions does not end at the national border
The Dutch climate policy only covers greenhouse gas emissions in our own country. But is this actually right, wonders Birka Wicke, Associate Professor of Renewable Resources at Utrecht University.
Rib-eye steak from Brazil, barbecue charcoal from Nigeria or shampoo with palm oil from Indonesia – we all buy products that come with an unintended extra: greenhouse gas emissions. They are emitted in the country of origin and therefore not our responsibility. Or are they? If we wish to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, we cannot look the other way in the Netherlands and Europe; we will have to take responsibility for part of these emissions abroad.
So far, the climate policies of the Dutch government and the European Union have focused on emissions within Dutch and European borders. However, our consumption also stimulates greenhouse gas emissions beyond those borders. Almost a quarter of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions are caused by deforestation and changes in land use. Nevertheless, studies and statistics that calculate emissions for countries and regions on the basis of consumption do not take these changes in land use into account.
74% of Indonesian palm oil is exported to countries such as the Netherlands, and no less than 88% of Malaysian palm oil is exported
Take palm oil, for example. The emissions from the energy consumed on an oil palm plantation and during palm oil processing are taken into account, but not the effects of the deforestation of the land for planting the oil palms in the first place. At the moment, only the country where the emissions take place is held responsible. This means that when Indonesian rainforests are cut down to make way for oil palm plantations, the carbon released in this process is attributed to Indonesia. Deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, countries that together account for 85% of global palm oil production, caused emissions of no less than 500 million tonnes of CO2 in 2015. That is 2.5 times the emissions of the whole of the Netherlands in 2015!
But are they the responsibility of Indonesia and Malaysia alone? Who is buying this palm oil? 74% of Indonesian palm oil is exported to countries such as the Netherlands, and no less than 88% of Malaysian palm oil is exported. It is an ingredient in the ice cream we eat, in pizzas, shampoo and lipstick. And palm oil is just one example. The same applies to soybeans and meat from Brazil, wood and paper from South East Asia and even the charcoal from Nigeria that we use on barbecues in the summer. All these products cause emissions,
so it would make sense that we assumed some of the responsibility for them. How can we put this into practice? Firstly, by drawing up new emissions accounting rules at the global level. To achieve this, we need to develop and agree on calculation methods for allocating emissions responsibility between countries.
The countries that historically emit the most emissions are also the countries with the most power in the discussions and negotiations
The question here is: what is fair? Are producing and consuming countries both responsible for 50% of the emissions, or should we use different percentages? Discussions on this allocation have been ongoing since the 1990s, but politically it remains too hot to handle. The countries that historically emit the most emissions are also the countries with the most power in the discussions and negotiations. It would obviously be bad for them if they were allocated more emissions.
Even without such a global system, however, we can take more responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions that we cause elsewhere. For example, we could find out which countries are emission hotspots and help them in their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the agreements reached in Paris in 2015, we are actually already obliged to provide such support. So far, however, the objective of ‘financing the reduction of emissions in developing countries’ has made little progress.
As long as we continue to eat meat from Brazil and import palm oil from Indonesia, our green responsibility does not end at the national border. If we truly wish to change our approach to tackling climate change, we must take responsibility for our actual contribution to the problem. As long as we are not doing so, we will continue to pretend to be greener than we are.
This blog by Birka Wicke of Utrecht University was published on the 18th of November in NRC Handelsblad (In Dutch).
Scientists from Utrecht University are reporting in the climate blog of the NRC on their research in the field of sustainability. They are united around the strategic theme of Pathways to Sustainability.