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Outsourcing our emissions

The average American is responsible for one of the largest carbon footprints in the world. Some 37% of our carbon emissions is associated with electricity generation; 33% stems from transportation – largely personal automobiles. The remaining 30% is attributed to industry, residential use, and agriculture.

America’s carbon emissions peaked in 2008 and have since trended downward. They are poised to drop even further with the institution of the Clean Power Act by the Obama administration. Most of the reduction is sought by reducing the use of coal to generate electricity.

Increases in fuel efficiency standards for automobiles are also destined to lead to lower carbon emissions from our transportation sector. The U.S. should arrive at the next international climate change conference with good news. But one aspect of our declining emissions is masked in the nation’s reports.

As manufacturing shifts to China and other Asian countries, carbon once emitted stateside no longer shows up on our balance sheet. Nearly every consumer good we buy is made in China or assembled overseas. No wonder our emissions from manufacturing are dropping.

A recent study indicates that our carbon emissions would be about 18% higher if we made everything at home. In some cases, through known efficiencies, we could manufacture goods at home with lower emissions than we cause abroad. But savings on labor overwhelm savings on energy, even when foreign factories are less efficient.

The hidden carbon costs of our imports needs to be part of our accounting. Our desire to buy goods from abroad does not help the global environment.


–This segment was adapted from a blog post by William Schlesinger, biogeochemist and Emeritus President of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

Produced in collaboration with WAMC Northeast Public Radio, this podcast originally aired on October 9, 2015. To access a full archive of Earth Wise podcasts, visit:

Photo courtesy of Kevin Dooley.

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