China is the largest polluter in the world and leads in greenhouse gas emissions but is exempt from the Kyoto Protocol. Many Western countries argue that all polluters should face restrictions if any do, but the US, for example, is the largest importer of goods from China.

Should importers of goods also be responsible for greenhouse gas emissions of goods?

The Kyoto Protocol had numerous flaws, based primarily on an inadequate understanding of which gases caused global warming and to what extent. Focusing solely on counting carbon emissions within national borders was also inadequate in deciding who is responsible for emissions reduction, as suggested by today’s G8+8 stalemate.

Fair global agreements on climate change and trade should mean that a nation’s entire carbon footprint woould also include imported goods and services manufactured elsewhere - or, in the case of the US and China, the vast amount of exported goods that had environmental impact on the producers but almost none at all on purchasers.

Tao Wang and Jim Watson write in a Tyndall Centre Briefing Note that 23 percent of China's carbon emissions are from the manufacturing of goods exported to industrialized countries - the equivalent of more than double the UK's emissions or all of Japan’s.

They say they have evidence that not only are industrialized countries historically responsible for the majority of carbon emissions to date, but industrialized countries may also have significant responsibility for driving the rapid growth in emissions from industrializing countries.

The United States, for example, argues against western countries reducing their emissions unless countries like China and India also do so, but the US is the top importer of Chinese made goods.

Wang and Watson calculated the carbon emissions of China’s exports in 2004, the most recent year of full data. Their results may be conservative because between 2004 and 2006, China’s export increased from $32bn to $177bn. China is recognized to be the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

Dr. Wang says that China is trying to reduce its energy use but there is only so much the national government can control in the face of high global demand and market price. "The government has tried to slow the expansion of energy intensive heavy industries by cutting tax rebates, but steel exports have increased by more than 200% driven by worldwide demand for cheaper steel from China. Though currently a small part of the Chinese economy, metals and cement are huge emitters of CO2.”

Dr Watson said: “Our results strengthen the argument that industrialised countries should move first to make real progress in cutting their carbon emissions – and also help nations like China and India to shift to a more low carbon path of development.”

This Briefing Note is part of a Tyndall Centre project that is assessing how China can industrialize without becoming locked long-term into an energy and economy dependent upon coal, oil and gas, unlike the already industrialised countries