A Walled-Off Garden

While much of the world has been filled with a quiet but growing concern over climate change, some have attempted to “crack” the problem of climate change, offering up technocratic shifts that provide resolution without revolution. A shining example of this kind of climate solution has been Sweden: the country has been claimed to have “solved climate change,” while others have called it a “green miracle.” Even the World Bank has lauded the country’s innovative policies they claim have managed to “decouple growth from CO2 emissions,” allowing Sweden to “have its cake and eat it too.”

Arguably the most concrete measure effective in Sweden’s avowed successes has been their progressive carbon tax, introduced in 1991. The tax was introduced piecemeal, the rate increasing periodically to allow the economy to shift with the policy. The result was reported to be a 9% drop in Sweden’s carbon emissions between 1990 and 2008, so exceeding targets set by the Kyoto protocol that a Swedish official claimed Sweden could be permitted to raise its carbon emissions by 4%.

But things are less clear if we understand how carbon emissions for a country and its economy are measured. Currently, most calculations for carbon emissions, including from organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the World Bank, are done via production-based accounting, or PBA. This means that the “emissions” of a country, whether measured, targeted or otherwise, are taken as the emissions that occur within that country’s borders. This is the case with Sweden as well, whose climate act aims to reduce “greenhouse gas emissions from activities in Sweden.”

The problem with PBA is that we live within a globalized economy, so much so that the World Bank estimates that 60% of the world’s GDP comes from trade. This means that a significant portion of products consumed within a country are not produced in it, and so a PBA approach misses the carbon impact of all imported products. Measuring emissions via consumption-based accounting, or CBA, yields very different results, demonstrating that a great portion of carbon-emitting production by developing countries is undertaken to meet the demand of more developed countries.

The case of Sweden highlights this, as even a study undertaken by Sweden’s own Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 belies the previous rosy picture. According to that study, while emissions from within Sweden decreased by 13 percent, they were outsourced to other countries through an increase of 30 percent in imported emissions. Instead of reducing their carbon footprint, then, Sweden’s greening efforts only pushed the polluting activities necessary for Swedish consumption onto developing economies.

This is not an uncommon pattern: a compilation of data by Oxford researchers shows that while Western nations are net importers of carbon, many of the world’s emerging economies are net exporters. What this means is that considered under CBA, even the oftenmaligned China consumes far less carbon per capita than any developed nation, and a great portion of its total emissions are driven by production to serve Western consumption.

More than anything, this phenomenon is reminiscent of the oft-cited criticism of the U.S. war on drugs, termed the “balloon effect.” According to this argument, U.S. efforts to suppress drug production and trade in any given Latin American country merely transfers the problem to a neighboring one, like squeezing the air in a balloon. Whatever the pros and cons of carbon taxation as a measure against climate change, the case of Sweden demonstrates the similar insufficiency of domestic solutions to a problem that is, at its base, global.

But if the global/local division were all that there is to this, then the solution would just be to imitate Sweden’s model universally. The problem with this is that the “decoupling” of growth and emissions heralded by the World Bank, and the piecemeal greening of countries like Sweden, has only been achievable because of the availability of other less-regulated nations from which they can import.

Given the same patterns of over-consumption in developed nations and profit-seeking markets, a solution external to these seems less and less plausible. So long as there is sustained demand for an abundance of finished products, a gallery of largely unaccountable corporations benefiting from this demand, and a global underclass dependent on this demand for their livelihoods, the emissions will find a way, like the air in a balloon.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on Sept. 10, 2020.

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