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Environment and energy

Rich nations displace environmental damage to developing countries

09 May 2018
Lenzen and Wiedmann
Professor Manfred Lenzen and Associate Professor Tommy Wiedmann (L-R) at the workshop, Material Flows and Environmental Impacts Behind International Trade of Japan, Tokyo. Credit: University of Sydney

Around a third of environmental and social impacts from consumption in wealthy nations is displaced to developing countries, according to the latest analysis. And that trend in outsourcing responsibility is increasing.

“Many citizens of rich countries require the work of up to five poor people to satisfy their consumption,” said Manfred Lenzen of the University of Sydney, Australia. “Rich consumers like us are implicated in pollution and inequality all over the world, and people in poor countries bear the brunt of our large environmental and social footprints.”

According to Tommy Wiedmann of UNSW Sydney, indirect effects facilitated by often complicated supply-chains are mostly hidden from consumers, who generally do not know where the raw ingredients of their purchases stem from.

“Carbon emissions are still accounted for on a territorial basis,” said Wiedmann. “This means that if a country moves from producing goods domestically to importing them from China, its carbon footprint decreases – leading politicians to think that the country is cleaning up its act.”

Lenzen, Wiedmann and colleagues used global multi-regional input–output models (GMRIO) to perform the analysis and untangle complex international trade routes. They found that traded goods embodied a substantial amount of emissions, water, pollutants and resources.

“Our new research clearly points towards a need for so-called consumption-based accounting – where a country’s environmental score includes its imports – and as such leaves no room for loopholes,” said Lenzen.

Although the importance of displacement of carbon emissions – also referred to as carbon leakage – has been known for some years, the researchers say they have now amassed evidence in terms of environmental issues such as air pollution, water scarcity, biodiversity loss, raw material and energy depletion, and nitrogen emissions.

The study is published in Nature Geoscience.

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