Carbon, water, waste… the hidden sides of international trade

Carbone, eau, déchets... les faces cachées du commerce international
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Article Index
NORWAY: CARBON FROM ELSEWHERE
Trade, carbon included
Water : at the source of trade
Asia | Valuable waste
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The expansion of the exchange of goods, capital, and persons is the driving force behind globalization. Until very recently, analysts only considered the volume of these exchanges. With the concept of sustainable development now integrated into this process, more studies are being carried out on the environmental impact of international trade, focusing on the volumes exchanged as well as on their qualitative aspects, production modes, energy consumed, and carbon emissions generated. Research projects are also turning toward the development of natural resources (e.g. water) used in the production of traded goods. Finally, the product lifecycle approach collects data on what happens to products at the end of their lives, the volumes of waste exchanged, and the share of recycling in the exchanges.

HIDDEN CARBON. International trade directly pollutes the environment, producing CO2 emissions during both the production and transportation of goods. This pollution has a global impact on the climate, and harms all consumers, whether they are close to or far away from the production site of the goods they purchase. More than 20% (5 gigatons) of global emissions are associated with the international trade of goods. While developed countries have committed to CO2 emissions reduction, assessments show that the Annex B countries of the Kyoto Protocol—which have agreed on an emissions reduction target—import nearly 25% of their CO2 emissions. By favoringcheap but  distantly produced goods, they become net carbon importers.

In emerging countries and countries with economies in transition, which do not have binding obligations to the Kyoto Protocol, exports are responsible for more than 25% of emissions. Studies show that the role of trade in CO2 emissions is less for large countries (e.g. the United States, Russia, and China) than for small countries (the Netherlands and Taiwan), where national production only covers a limited proportion of overall needs. Carbon involved in trade could run counter to domestic emission reduction efforts. For instance, Norway, which had stabilized its national carbon emissions (55-57 million tons per year since the beginning of the 2000s), has seen very strong growth in emissions included in the products it imports (from 33 to 39 million tons from 2001 to 2007). In the Norwegian case, nearly 70% of the “imported” carbon comes from developing countries.

COMPETING INTERESTS FOR LIMITED WATER RESOURCES. Among natural resources necessary for human life, water is undoubtedly the most irreplaceable. Population growth, melting glaciers, and soil warming contribute to making water a scarce resource. Sustainable development discourse continuously reminds us that saving water and protecting water quality are important. A less well-known aspect of water management is directly linked to trade. A great deal of water is often used in producing consumer goods— 1,160 liters per kilogram of wheat, 3,500 liters per kilogram of beef, and 8,000 liters for a pair of shoes. With agricultural plant production being the water top consumer, and trade in agricultural products implies water exports. Many major agricultural countries (the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Australia) are thus net water exporters. The sustainability question comes into play in this model when net water exporting countries are also countries that suffer chronic droughts, with difficulty in supplying drinking water to their population, or

DANGEROUS OR RECYCLABLE. Global annual waste production is estimated at being between 2.5 and 4 billion tons. Despite the existence of the Basel Convention on the cross-border transport of hazardous wastes, in force since 1992 and signed by 165 countries, data on the magnitude of these exchanges remain incomplete. Nearly 70% of signatory countries do not provide information on incoming or outgoing flows. However, the limited data available signal strong trade growth in this domain: from 2 million tons in 1993 to 8.5 million tons in 2001 for the 50 countries reporting. In Asia, which has become the global production center for manufactured goods, the production of dangerous waste has become unprecedented as flows from the most developed countries (Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore) to the least developed countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, and South Korea) has undergone significant growth. Trade in recyclable waste has also greatly increased in Asia. For the least developed countries, waste imports are actually a cheaper source of materials (aluminum, lead, plastics, paper) than genuinely raw materials and are of better quality than their own national waste. This trade is often considered as a means of reducing global pressure on natural resources. In June 2004, following a Japanese proposal, the G8 adopted the Initiative 3R aiming to reduce, reuse, and recycle waste, in particular by proposing a reduction in tariff barriers to their flows. Japan had already concluded bilateral agreements promoting waste exchanges with most of its neighbors. These agreements often go beyond recyclable waste and raise questions about the capacity of receiving countries to process dangerous waste such as electronic components and chemical or medical waste.

NORWAY: CARBON FROM ELSEWHERE

70% of carbon emissions imputable to Norwegian imports come from developing countries, particularly
from China.

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Trade, carbon included

Trade in goods accounts for 20% of carbon emissions. The share of these emissions from developed and emerging countries that are the most involved in international trade is very significant.

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Water : at the source of trade

The circulation of water associated with the production of goods reveals a specialization of countries in the following domains: irrigated agriculture, livestock farming, or the production of manufactured goods. However, the allocation of water is not always compatible with the water resources available in these countries.
 

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Asia | Valuable waste

The circulation of waste in Asia mirrors the flow of merchandise between countries. The most developed countries are net exporters of dangerous or recyclable waste. Rapidly industrializing countries (China, India, Malaysia, and South Korea) are the top importers of recyclable waste, which provides them with cheap raw materials.

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