Effect of crude oil carbon accounting decisions on meeting global climate budgets


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change quantified a cumulative remaining carbon budget beyond which there is a high likelihood global average temperatures will increase more than 2 °C above preindustrial temperature. While there is global participation in mitigation efforts, there is little global collaboration to cooperatively mitigate emissions. Instead, countries have been acting as individual agents with independent emission reduction objectives. However, such asymmetric unilateral climate policies create the opportunity for carbon leakage resulting from the shift in embodied carbon emissions within trade networks. In this analysis, we use an optimization-based model of the global crude trade as a case study to demonstrate the importance of a cooperative, system-level approach to climate policy in order to most effectively, efficiently, and equitably achieve carbon mitigation objectives. To do this, we first characterize the cost and life cycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with the 2014 crude production and consumption system by aggregating multiple data sources and developing a balanced trade matrix. We then optimize this network to demonstrate the potential for carbon mitigation through more efficient use of crude resources. Finally, we implement a global carbon cap on total annual crude emissions. We find that such a cap would require crude consumption to drop from 4.2 gigatons (Gt) to 1.1 Gt. However, if each country had an individual carbon allocation in addition to the global cap consistent with the nationally determined contribution limits resulting from the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, allowable consumption would further decrease to approximately 770 million metric tonnes. Additionally, the carbon accounting method used to assign responsibility for embodied carbon emissions associated with the traded crude further influences allowable production and consumption for each country. The simplified model presented here highlights how global cooperation and a system-level cooperative approach could guide climate policy efforts to be more cost effective and equitable, while reducing the leakage potential resulting from shifting trade patterns of embodied carbon emissions. Additionally, it demonstrates how the spatial distribution of crude consumption and production patterns change under a global carbon cap given various carbon accounting strategies.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program under Grant No. DGE1252522, the Climate and Energy Decision Making (CEDM) center through a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (SES-0949710) and the Carnegie Mellon Department of Engineering and Public Policy. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations. The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments, which have greatly improved this work.

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Correspondence to Leslie S. Abrahams.

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Abrahams, L.S., Samaras, C., Griffin, W.M. et al. Effect of crude oil carbon accounting decisions on meeting global climate budgets. Environ Syst Decis 37, 261–275 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10669-017-9638-5

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  • Embodied carbon
  • Carbon leakage
  • Carbon accounting
  • Climate policy
  • Carbon budget
  • Crude trade
  • Nationally determined contribution limits
  • COP21