Friday, February 1, 2008

Offshoring Energy and Emissions - Coming back from Developing to Developed Countries

A recent study in the journal in Environmental Science and Technology discusses the 'embodied carbon' in global trade. The concept of embodied effects in global trade has been noted by scientists and engineers by estimating such aspects as the energy embodied in a product when it is made in one place and shipped to another.

Somewhat by definition, making a product in China (say a Barbie doll) and shipping it to the United States takes more energy than making it in the United States and keeping it here. Just think of the energy used to create the infrastructure (tankers) and fuel the cargo ships (low grade petroleum used in ships). You don't need these if you don't travel the globe, but both systems require intra-continental infrastructure.

As peak oil and gas come on, businesses will be forced (albeit in some views 'rightly so') to better account for the energy used to make a particular product or provide a particular service. Products from China don't cost less in the U.S. because it actually costs less to make from an engineering sense; it just costs less based upon how much you value a person's time and labor. Essentially the time of farmer converted to factory worker in China has less value than the average Joe/Jane in the U.S. The 100s of millions of workers in China available to work cheap is the main reason why products have gotten cheaper in the U.S.

Essentially, the CO2 being shipped from abroad to the U.S. (and generally from developing to developed countries) is a proxy measure for energy. As suggested in the synopsis (linked above), the solution is likely to factor the cost into the consumer of the product and not necessarily its producer.

And we should quit shipping electronic 'waste' to China, as someday we'll likely wish we kept it to make use of it via recycling, but that's another story ...

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