29 May 2019

Climate : two complementary approaches for a better understanding of the greenhouse gases issue

Since the 1970s, science has been warning us about climate change resulting from greenhouse gasses produced by human activities. Four decades is the time it took us to become aware of the urgency of the matter. How much more time will be needed for us to be convinced of the importance of acting immediately, before the problem becomes irreversible? 

We are eager to deny our responsibility to act and to point at others:

  1. Rich countries like to claim that China is the main responsable entity for climate change because the emissions resulting from its economic activities make it the top greenhouse gasses emitter (around 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, that is around 1/5th of total global emissions);

  2. Poor countries like to point at rich countries as the main culprits and they emphasise that for them to develop, they should be exempted from reducing their emissions and should be supported to be able to fund their transition towards a more sustainable economy [read].

World map of greenhouse gas emissions related to fossil fuels in 2017, by territory

Source : Global Carbon Atlas

As a consequence, in France for example, some irresponsible political leaders have no hesitation to say that there is useless to reduce the country’s greenhouse gasses emissions, first because if France is the only country changing, efforts made in the country will has such a small impact that it will not contribute to solve the climate change issue (France’s greenhouse gasses emissions represent about 5% of global emissions), and second because efforts made would, according to them, bring a loss of economic competitiveness for the country.

The argument is doubly deceptive and absurd. Indeed, if each and every country waits for other to act, nothing will happen and the increase of the world’s average temperature will be much higher than the 1.5 or 2 degrees that are considered in the IPPC’s scenarios [read]. In short, it will be a disaster! Moreover, a decrease of greenhouse gasses emissions will, inter alia, means implementing technological changes in production that, in the medium and long term, will give a technological (and competitive) advantage to the country when, under the pressure of climate change, every one in the world will be desperately looking for more climate-friendly technologies. In fact, doing nothing today is the best recipe to be dependent on other in the future.

However, the issue is not just a matter of production technology, it also has to do with consumption. Over recent decades, in order to satisfy their unquenchable thirst for consumption, some rich countries have relocated production a large part of their industrial production towards countries where the workforce is docile and underpaid, and where environmental rules are more accommodating. Thus, the labour-intensive textile industry migrated towards Asia, more recently the automobile industry left to Eastern Europe, North Africa or Mexico, while the very polluting shipbuilding, steel and rare earth industries (among others) moved to poor and emerging countries. With the development of international trade, a growing part of our food also rely on importing food and animal feed.

All this has allowed to limit environmental degradation in rich countries while exacerbating it in poor and emerging countries where large cities (Beijing, Delhi, Mexico and many others) have seen their air become unbreathable. It has also helped to relocate the production of greenhouse gases while maintaining largely the consumption of resulting goods in rich countries. As a consequence, there is a considerable difference between greenhouse gas emissions resulting from production in a given country with greenhouse gases embodied in goods consumed in the same country. Indeed, for example, greenhouse gases emitted while making steel used in France but produced in China will be attributed to China and not to France, those emitted to invest in infrastructure and factories for producing for export will be attributed to the producing country and not to those who, ultimately, will be consuming the goods produced for them. The table below gives some examples of emissions linked to fossil fuels per inhabitant, depending on the point of view, whether that of production or of consumption.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to fossil fuels:

the two perspectives (in tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per inhabitant)

    Source : Global Carbon Atlas

It is obvious that only presenting the production side of emissions tends to minimise responsibility of consuming countries to the detriment of exporting countries, something that is not neutral during climate negotiations. Neither is it neutral regarding the solutions put forward to reduce emissions. Putting the emphasis on production encourages seeking technological solutions to the issue, or if one is particularly myopic, it favours more relocation. Taking into account the consumption side helps to consider additional solutions: through reduction of consumption or its reorientation towards goods that are more climate-friendly. This reduction/reorientation can be obtained through information campaigns and/or more direct action, in particular subsidy and tax policies [read].

As already stated elsewhere on, food is both a cause and a victim of climate change [read]. In this areas, as in others, solutions are to be found both in production technology and in more sensible consumption choices. A more energy-efficient agriculture that contributes more to carbon sequestration in the soil by maintaining in it a larger quantity of organic matter or by reducing meat consumption, are two examples of such changes. Moreover, in addition to reducing greenhouse gases emissions, they have other positive impacts: for example, more resistance to drought and soil erosion and a better health, respectively.

The case of palm oil

We have already had the opportunity to write here on issues raised by palm oil [read].

The production of this kind of oil has been multiplied by more than 35 times between 1963 and 2013, and it uses more than 21 million hectares in 2017 (compared to only 3.5 million in 1963), according to FAO. It is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly because of the peat land fires that occur periodically in South-East Asia (Indonesia and Malaysia), the main producing region. According to World Resources Institute estimates, in 2015, Indonesia alone emitted as much greenhouse gas in three weeks as Germany in one year!

Palm oil has become a very popular ingredient in the food industry because it is cheap and because it is the only vegetable oil that is solid in ambient temperature. In France, it is estimated to represent around 1% of greenhouse gas emissions (computed from the point of view of consumption), 2% in the EU. The decision by consumers to limit - or avoid completely - the consumption of palm oil from their diet by replacing it by more climate-friendly vegetable oils would therefore have a direct and significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions generated by food consumption.


To know more:

  1. Global Carbon Atlas, World map of greenhouse gas emissions, website.

  2. Fondation Good Planet, Carbon Calculator, site web.

  3. Calculation Tools, tools for calculating greenhouse gas emissions, Greenhouse Gas Protocole, website.

Selection of recent articles on related to the topic:

  1. Policies for a transition towards more sustainable and climate friendly food systems, 2018.

  2. Is France world champion of food sustainability?  2018.

  3. Climate finance for poor countries: confusion, lack of transparency and probability that commitments made will not be respected, 2016

  4. Climate is changing - Food and Agriculture must too - Towards a “new food and agricultural revolution”, 2016.

  5. Fire in South-East Asia: a highly visible consequence of our failing food system, 2015.


Last update:    May 2019

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