Cutting Carbon Means More than Fancy Bookkeeping

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Matthew Brown / AP

A pair of coal trains idle on the tracks near Dry Fork Station, a coal-fired power plant near Gillette, Wyo, April 29, 2010.

You don't get much greener than Oregon. The Pacific Northwestern state is home to Portland — the capital of American progressivism — and is a leading booster of alternative energy, with laws mandating that the state's major utilities produce a quarter of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. In addition, Oregon is blessed with bountiful and carbon-free hydroelectric power, which is one reason its per capita carbon emissions are half that of the national average. Coal power has all but disappeared from Oregon — the state's last coal-fired power plant, outside the coastal town of Boardman, is set to close by 2020.

But the picture is a little more complicated than that. Even as Boardman is set to shutter its plant, the town is weighing the construction of a huge new coal-export facility, one of several that have been proposed in the Pacific Northwest to help export Powder River Basin coal from Montana and Wyoming to the energy-hungry markets of Asia. If all the proposed ports were to be built, more than 150 million tons of carbon-intensive coal could be exported from the Northwest, nearly 50% more than the U.S.'s coal export total last year. Even as American coal consumption declines to its lowest level since 1986 — thanks to tougher air-pollution regulations and cheap natural gas from shale deposits — we could end up sending more of the stuff abroad.

That's the dirty secret of cutting carbon. Oregon — and America — may be getting off coal, but if it just ends up being burned elsewhere, the climate won't be any better off. According to an analysis released this month by the Breakthrough Institute (BTI) — a nonpartisan think tank — many developed countries that appear to be reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions may be playing this same bookkeeping game, essentially relocating their carbon footprint to other nations in the form of outsourced manufacturing or exported fuel. To put it more bluntly, they're cheating — and the rest of the world is paying the price.

Balancing carbon output and economic growth is a hard thing to do. The goal in any decarbonization effort is to reduce the quantity of CO2 that's emitted for every unit of economic output generated. The world needs to decarbonize at the rate of about 4% a year until 2050 in order to keep atmospheric carbon concentration at the 450-parts-per-million level that scientists broadly agree is required to prevent serious climate change.

BTI analyzed energy data from 1971 to 2006, drawn from 26 developed countries, and found that we're nowhere near that magic 4%. The annual decarbonization rate has been about 1.3% since the 1980s, and only a handful of countries have been close to 4%. That group includes Sweden, which has decarbonized at 3.6% a year, mostly by replacing oil-burning power plants with nuclear and hydro after the oil shocks of the 1970s. France has managed to decarbonize at 2.8% a year by following a similar route, phasing out oil power in favor of state-sponsored nuclear and hydro.

France and Sweden are not alone in the decarbonization points they're putting on the board. The BTI report shows that Ireland and Britain have managed to decarbonize rapidly too — at 3.2% and 2.8% a year respectively. But in both those cases, the scores have been much more a matter of shifting from carbon-intensive agriculture and manufacturing than of moving to cleaner power. Manufacturing as a share of British GDP declined from 28% in 1971 to 11% in 2006, more than double the average decline in the other nations that are part of the 34-member Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Imports as a share of British GDP rose from 21% in 1971 to 30% in 2000 — but the carbon created by those imported goods and services is off the U.K.'s books.

Globally, this kind of faux greening has taken a toll. According to a 2011 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, outsourced emissions have essentially canceled out any carbon reductions made under the Kyoto Protocol. That means we're doing even less than we think — and no one thinks we're doing that much to begin with.

The lesson of the BTI report is that climate action has to be global, which means — sooner rather than later — emissions will also have to fall in large developing nations like India and China. That won't be easy, though the examples of countries like France and Sweden show that it can be done if we really choose to. It also means we need to do everything we can to keep polluting fuel like coal in the ground, not exported to countries that have weaker environmental standards and dirtier industries. As for Oregon, if it wants to keep being green, it needs to help a world that's still hooked on coal — not act as a dealer.