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The Rich World Must Take Responsibility for Its Carbon Footprint

China and other developing economies are instinctively wary of developed-country proposals to combine domestic carbon prices with “carbon tariffs” imposed on imported goods. But such policies may be the only way for rich-world consumers to take responsibility for their carbon footprint in other countries.

LONDON – The climate activist Greta Thunberg has accused developed economies of “creative carbon accounting” because their measures of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, and of achieved and planned reductions, fail to consider the gases emitted when imported goods are produced in other countries. As Chinese officials quite rightly point out, about 15% of their country’s emissions result when goods are made in China but consumed in other, usually richer, economies.

China and other developing economies also are instinctively wary of developed-country proposals to combine domestic carbon prices with “carbon tariffs” imposed on imported goods. But such policies may be the only way for rich-world consumers to take responsibility for their carbon footprint in other countries.

The “creative accounting” charge would be unfair if it were meant to imply deliberate concealment; the United Kingdom’s government, for example, publishes an easily accessible carbon-footprint report. But the figures certainly support Thunberg’s point. In 2016, the UK emitted 784 million tons of GHGs on a consumption basis, versus 468 million tons on a production basis. And from 1997-2016, the UK’s consumption-based emissions fell by only 10%, compared to a 35% decrease in production-related emissions.

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