Study reveals land-use emissions embodied in international trade

Human land use and agricultural activities, while producing vast quantities of agricultural products for human consumption, have also disrupted ecosystems and altered the climate system. Emissions from land-use change and agriculture (together referred to as “land-use emissions”) are estimated to account for more than 20 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. However, as a result of globalization and international trade, such environmental effects have often occurred in different regions from where products are consumed. Trade-related emissions accounting is needed to reveal the international drivers of emissions and to better target and coordinate mitigation efforts. Although previous studies have quantified energy-related carbon emissions embodied in international trade, a comprehensive global analysis of the interregional transfer of emissions from both land-use change and agriculture is lacking.

Recently, Assistant Professor Chaopeng HONG from Tsinghua Shenzhen International Graduate School (Tsinghua SIGS) and collaborators published a research article, assessing land-use emissions embodied in international trade between 2004 and 2017, through use of a comprehensive accounting of land-use emissions and a multiregional input-output model.

Annually, 27% of land-use emissions are related to agricultural products ultimately consumed in a different region from where they were produced. Roughly three-quarters of embodied emissions are from land-use change, with the largest transfers from lower-income countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, and Argentina to more industrialized regions such as Europe, the United States, and China. Land-use emissions embodied in global trade increased by 14% between 2004 and 2017, mostly due to increases in trade volume, and partly offset by decreases in emission intensity.

The research reveals that globalization and international trade have shifted greenhouse gas emissions across regions. Therefore, global climate mitigation needs concerted efforts of all countries. The research highlights targeted opportunities for international cooperation to reduce global land-use emissions. Agriculturally productive regions should promote sustainable agricultural intensification, reduce local land-use change and agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, while maintaining their important roles in global supply chains; the international community should promote sustainable consumption, build a green trade system and international cooperation mechanisms, so as to reduce the level of land-use emissions embodied in trade and to promote global climate governance.

Figure 1. Land-use emissions embodied in international trade

Figure 2. Land-use emissions embodied in trade and interregional fluxes in 2004

The research article entitled “Land-use emissions embodied in international trade,” was recently published in the journal Science. The corresponding authors are Prof. Chaopeng HONG from Tsinghua SIGS, and Prof. Steven Davis from University of California, Irvine. The first authors are Prof. Chaopeng HONG from Tsinghua SIGS, and Dr. Hongyan ZHAO from Beijing Normal University. Authors also include researchers from Tsinghua University; Peking University; Chinese Academy of Sciences; Stanford University; University of California, San Diego; University of California, Davis; and Ludwig-Maximilian University. This research was supported by the scientific research start-up funds from Tsinghua SIGS and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

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Written by Chaopeng Hong

Edited by Alena Shish & Yuan Yang