Butterfly Effect: Ready to Gulp Down Some Climate Guilt?


Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

As new parents, my wife and I spend hours poring over clothes we want to buy for our infant daughter, who already has a larger wardrobe than either of us. My wife, a designer, insists that only a handful of brands get the sizing of baby clothes right. But whatever the brand, every article of clothing we buy is made in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh or Turkey, even though the consumers, in this case, live in India.

The globalization of manufacturing is nothing new. But it’s at the heart of a fresh debate over who we should blame for humankind’s greenhouse gas emissions at a time when climate change has ceased to remain a future threat and already represents an existential crisis.  

Earlier this week, tropical storm Henri barreled into the American northeast, drenching it with torrents of rain. But even before Henri made landfall, flash floods had wreaked havoc in the country’s South, killing at least 27 people in two states. Indeed, floods and fires are ravaging everywhere from California and Tennessee to China and Turkey, reminding us of the terrors of climate change. Steps to fight that scourge must be welcomed. But, in a bid to be green, it’s important not to miss, well, the forest for the trees.

Among the most significant recent economic ideas to combat climate change is the European Union’s proposal for the imposition of carbon border taxes on select imports from countries the bloc deems to have low environmental standards. The tax is expected to bring in nearly $12 billion in revenue that EU nations can then use for their own transition to clean energy sources. The U.S. and the U.K. are also considering similar taxes.

But Australia, one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters, has alleged that such carbon taxes are a modern form of protectionism cleverly cloaked in environmental concerns. The proposals for carbon import taxes in the West are also sparking stern rebukes from the largest economies in the developing world, including China, India, Brazil and South Africa, which say these tariffs are discriminatory. 

This can all appear like the standard push and pull of trade negotiations between countries. Yet look closely and this battle — which is sure to play out at COP26, the United Nations’ November climate conference in Glasgow — has everything to do with our choices.  

Traditionally, we compute each country’s carbon footprint by calculating the total emissions of carbon dioxide within its geographic boundaries. China is the world’s most polluting nation by this metric, with the U.S. a distant second and India an even more remote third. Russia, Japan and Germany take the next three spots.

Developing nations have long argued that the world ought to look at per capita emissions: After all, surely an ordinary Filipino national is entitled to the same emissions as someone in New York. By this measure, wealthy, oil and gas producing Middle Eastern nations like Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are among the worst offenders, along with rich or sparsely populated Western countries like Canada, Montenegro and Luxembourg. The average American citizen has a carbon footprint twice that of a Chinese person.

Yet if everyone were to aspire to a Qatari level of per capita emissions, the world would have no chance of surviving. That clearly isn’t the answer.

What if we instead took an entirely new approach to apportion culpability for global warming, one that focuses on understanding our individual and collective roles in the crisis? What if we calculate responsibility for emissions based on consumption rather than production? After all, whether it’s Ethiopian coffee or Bangladesh-made garments, manufacturing across the developing world is often geared toward Western demand.

Should an Ethiopian farmer take all the blame for the carbon dioxide emitted while producing coffee that’s sipped in a hipster café in San Francisco? Should a Bangladeshi mother of three working on subsistence wages be held accountable for the Zara onesie she helps produce — when it’s my 6-month-old who will wear it?

Consider the facts. Bangladesh’s garment industry has an annual revenue of $34 billion. Its domestic clothing market is less than $3 billion. More than 90% of its famed industry of ready-made clothes is targeted at exports, with Europe and the U.S. among its major markets.

The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and much of that currently gets added up as the carbon footprint of countries like Bangladesh, China and Vietnam. But their pollution-spewing manufacturing units are what allow the West to enjoy consumer goods and higher profits without worrying about dirty air at home.

If we calculate our climate guilt based on consumption rather than production, China’s carbon emissions, for instance, drop significantly. America’s emissions rise. And Western Europe is the worst offender when it comes to net carbon consumption.

Here’s why this matters. As long as we determine each country’s climate responsibility based on their production emissions, it’s easy for wealthy nations that have shipped polluting industries overseas to pretend they’re cleaner than the grimy “Global South.” Poorer nations need that investment, and so there’s little economic incentive for either side to change. Punitive taxes on developing nations only compound inequity.

By instead holding each nation accountable for their carbon consumption, we give the big, wealthy nations that wield influence in global trade an incentive to really change — no matter whether their factories are in Mexico or Maine. And consumers like me rightly get shamed for unnecessary purchases.

This brings me to you. Are you ready to gulp down some guilt with that cuppa joe?

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