Did Global Financial Crisis Curb Carbon Emissions?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,,, at 3/27/2012 12:23:00 PM
In a rather disappointing word, no. Intuitively, you may have expected worldwide carbon emissions to drop given a slowdown in global economic activity. However, it is a tale of two different worlds--the Global North (developed nations) and the Global South (the developing nations). While the likes of North America and Europe did experience fairly significant slowdowns in both economic activity and corresponding carbon emissions, that pattern did not hold in the developing world.

While searching for material on global environmental governance for my IPE class--I am the very model of a modern IPE instructor--I came across a very informative piece from Science Daily regarding recession and carbon emissions. The gist of it is as I mentioned above was nary a blip in LDCs' emissions, powered especially by major emerging economies:
The sharp decrease in global carbon dioxide emissions attributed to the worldwide financial crisis in 2009 quickly rebounded in 2010, according to research supported by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In 2010, emissions reached an all-time high of 9.1 billion tons of carbon, compared with 8.6 billion tons in 2009. The downturn was also followed by milestone carbon dioxide emissions from the developing world's emerging economies. In developing countries, consumption-based emissions, or those emissions associated with the consumption of goods and services, increased 6.1 percent over 2009 and 2010.

As a result, 2009 marked the first time that developing countries had higher consumption-based emissions than developed countries. "Previously, developed countries released more carbon dioxide, but that's no longer true due to emerging economies in developing countries, such as China and India," said Tom Boden of ORNL's CDIAC. "This trend will likely continue in the future based on current developments." 
The news release further argues that the increasing energy intensity of the world economy (more energy inputs needed per GDP of output) accounts for this unpromising pattern. The accompanying graph tells the story. Note that it separates these emissions into production and consumption:

The problem is one of historical fairness in curbing carbon emissions: how can developed nations tell developing ones with a straight face that they should drastically cut emissions now that they are now responsible for the lion's share of them? After all, developed nations are responsible for more of them when viewed in a historical perspective. As one of my students pointed out, it's a rehash of Friedrich List's "kicking away the ladder" criticism, but instead involving carbon-intensive means of development instead of tools of industrial policy. Having developed through the use of carbon-intensive industries, are these industrialized nations now "kicking away the ladder" to development they themselves once used?

It puts me in a bind. While perhaps unfair to LDCs, the honest truth is that Mother Earth could not care less if these emissions emanate from rich or poor nations.

NOTE: The US Energy Information Administration has specific emissions figures for countries such as superpolluters China and the United States that mirror the findings above. Indeed, the current slowdown in manufacturing activity in China--five straight monthly declines--may bode better for the environment than the global financial crisis did.