Our foreign pollution from imported goods

How should we account for the fact that a great deal of environmental damage associated with one’s own country actually occurs overseas? For example, Chinese manufacturers making our shoes, electronics and bicycles emit a lot of carbon on our behalf. Are these emissions on our ‘to do’ list in terms of the task of reducing overall global emissions? If so, how can our policies at home take responsibility for the associated overseas carbon emissions, water pollution, and so forth?

That’s a question taken up by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). They call it the ‘external environmental footprint’ and note that to date, both international trade agreements and environmental agreements have not dealt with the issue adequately.

shelves of goods in a retail shop

Whose emissions are those? Imported goods in a retail shop (author photo).

Sweden’s pioneering  national environmental policy, known as the “Generational Goal”, states that: “The overall goal of Swedish environmental policy is to hand over to the next generation a society in which the major environmental problems in Sweden have been solved, without increasing environmental and health problems outside Sweden’s borders”.

To help the Swedish government develop specific policies to address the last part of this goal–the external environmental footprint–SEI recently produced a policy brief. The brief outlines a three-step analytical framework for policy development, including:

  • Mapping the national consumption profile, including the ratio of imported goods  and the main categories of imported products.
  • Identifing policy instruments by looking at ‘hotspots,’ product categories and regions with highest environmental impacts, and analysing existing policy instruments for relevance to imported goods
  • Classifying and prioritising policy options

Read more in the briefing at:


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