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Which emissions are mine? The case of consumption-based accounting

Which emissions are mine? The case of consumption-based accounting

Christian Barry

To address climate change we need to reduce net emissions globally. Most international processes and frameworks have involved seeking to get countries to make cuts to their emissions. Net zero has recently emerged as a new norm, one in which different actors (including but not limited to countries) pledge to achieve a form of GHG neutrality—ensuring that they put no more carbon into the atmosphere than they take out— by a certain date. But given that actors can be related to emissions in different ways, it is not clear which emissions should be treated as ‘belonging’ to their inventories. At present, emissions are typically allocated to countries depending on where fossil fuels are released into the atmosphere—so called ‘production-based’ emissions accounting. Recently it has been suggested that allocating emissions based instead on where goods and services in which fossil fuels are embedded are consumed—consumption-based accounting— would constitute a significant moral improvement on production-based methods.  In this paper, we argue that all methods of emissions accounting that have been proposed, including consumption-based accounting, are inadequate and we provide an underlying explanation of why this is so. We conclude by considering what we ought to do in light of this, given the emergence of net zero norms and the character of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

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