Want to cut carbon emissions? Work with Chinese suppliers

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To achieve global climate change goals, international businesses should make more efforts to reduce carbon emissions from their Chinese suppliers.

As part of the Paris Agreement, countries committed to keep the increase in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 C (2.7 F).

This global campaign will not be successful without the participation of multinationals.

On average, more than 7 percent of an industry’s carbon footprint is attributed to emissions from the supply chain — a global network that manufactures and distributes a certain product before it reaches consumers. 

For example, a 64G iPhone X emits about 174 pounds of CO2 equivalent in its lifetime. About 80 percent of the gas is emitted during the production of its components, as well as the assembly process.

Supply chain emissions are especially important for China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. Much of the gas comes from factories that make clothes, toys and smartphones for international brands.

Take the clothing industry, for instance: China is the world’s largest carbon producer in the sector, but 72 percent of the emissions can be attributed to clothing exported to other countries, according to a study by environmental consultancy the Carbon Trust.

For China to cut its carbon dioxide production, attention must be given to the massive emissions that come from the production lines of the clothes and electronics we use every day.  

Although many multinationals have pledged to cut the emissions from their own operations, most are turning a blind eye towards the greenhouse gases churned out in their supply chains.

Production line of Chinese workers

The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, the non-governmental group I work for, is conducting an analysis of the carbon policies of 118 IT and textile brands that have suppliers in China.

In collaboration with the Carbon Disclosure Project, we have found that 72 firms have released the emissions data, but only 23 record how much CO2 their upstream manufacturers produce.

More than half of the 118 brands have set their own carbon reduction targets. However, only 17 have similar targets to cut supply chain emissions. Merely 16 brands, including Dell and Cisco, have taken concrete actions to push their suppliers in calculating and disclosing carbon emissions. 

Apple has included emissions disclosures in its Supplier Code of Conduct this year. 

supermarket consumer choices

But that’s not enough for the world to win the fight against climate change. We strongly advise more global companies to follow suit by pressuring their suppliers in China to reduce emissions.

In the meantime, the Chinese government should step up requiring local manufacturers to release their emissions numbers. Very few Chinese factories currently disclose their carbon emissions, making it difficult for global brands to hold them to account.

Consumers also can make an impact by choosing products which have a low carbon footprint. This will push multinationals to pay more attention to not only their own emissions, but those from their supply chains. 

As the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, China’s actions have a huge effect on what happens to the planet. The COAL+ICE exhibition, which runs through Sept. 23 in San Francisco, explores the consequences that fossil fuels have on climate change.

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