It is probably a safe bet that very few Americans who unwrapped a brand-new iPhone left under their Christmas tree thought about its impact on the global climate.
I have some good news for them, and some bad.
No, Apple has not managed to produce the device without adding carbon to the air. The company expects an iPhone 5S to inject 70kg of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere over its lifetime, 5kg less than the iPhone 5 that Apple introduced last year.
The “good” news is that under the standard accounting of carbon emissions bandied about at climate talks, it is not, mostly, the US’ fault. About three-quarters of the carbon dioxide is considered the responsibility of other people — in places like Taiwan, China, South Korea and Inner Mongolia — where the phone and its parts were made.
The bad news is not just that the effort to curb global warming is as stuck as ever, but that, whether we like it or not, we are all in this together.
The obstacles remain significant. Countless summit conferences since the Kyoto Protocol on climate change was adopted more than 15 years ago have failed to budge the fundamental roadblocks standing in the way of collective action: How should the costs be divided? Who did what to whom?
Globalization — which in the process of “exporting” production and jobs from rich to poor countries also “exported” the carbon dioxide emitted to make the products consumed by the rich countries — adds another complex twist to allocating responsibility for the carbon in the air. The disquieting question is this: Are emissions the responsibility of the countries that made them or of the countries for whom the products were made?
Two years ago, some of the greenest constituencies in the US asked Elizabeth Stanton and colleagues at the Stockholm Environment Institute-US Center to perform a set of calculations on their carbon emissions. Rather than tally the carbon they produced, they wanted an inventory of the emissions generated in making, transporting, using and disposing of what they consumed.
They were in for a surprise. San Francisco, for example, generated only 8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2008. The city’s consumption, by contrast, added nearly 22 million tonnes of carbon to the air. Using consumption-based measurements, Oregon’s emissions in 2005 jumped to 78 million tonnes from 53 million.
“The people who hired us to do it saw themselves as so green and innovative,” said Frank Ackerman, who led the Climate Economics Group at the center at the time and now works with Stanton at Synapse Energy Economics, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “They thought that because they had nice initiatives going on they would come out lower, never mind the fact that a lot of the manufactures they consumed were made abroad.”
The focus on consumption makes sense. Understanding its impact on climate change is a necessary first step for families and municipalities to take concrete action to mitigate carbon emissions. However, this sort of recalculation could have an unforeseen effect on the international politics of climate change by shifting responsibility on a global scale.
With the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air zooming last spring to what is believed to be its highest level since mastodons roamed the earth, the US, against all odds, hopes this year will finally deliver the breakthroughs needed for the big carbon-spewing nations to agree on a plan by next year.