Immigration and climate change: shifting emissions

Evil, evil strawberriesSeveral press outlets are calling the recent immigration rallies the new wave of 1960’s era civil rights protests. But most commentators have missed the environmental angle — the connection between trade policy, immigration policy and climate change. How we define our borders ulitimately dictates where we produce goods, who regulates that production and how far we have to ship them.

Consider the rapid growth in the US economy throughout the 1990’s and the paradoxical drop in the amount of CO2 we produce per dollar of GDP. One reason for this drop was the rapid expansion of the service economy. The other was the rapid movement of manufacturing activities abroad. Manufacturing accounts for a significant percentage of the US energy demand. The more we move abroad, the more we reduce local energy demand.

Of course, our t-shirts, PCs, toys, and whatnot all still get made, using energy produced near the foreign factories. Sometimes this is better — Mexico’s vast natural gas reserves give it a carbon intensity much lower than the United States. Sometimes this is worse — China puts the equivalent of the UK’s energy capacity online every year, mainly in the form of coal plants. A complication of the Kyoto framework is that developing countries, where the bulk of our manufacturing industries have shifted, are not obligated to reduce their carbon emissions or even their carbon intensity as they grow.

Immigration also affects how we produce and ship goods with high labor content. Consider your local strawberries. The US strawberry industry is highly concentrated in Watsonville, CA, home to a large migrant farm worker population (and excellent queso fresco, if you’re passing through and aren’t scared of listeria).

If unskilled labor is restricted, will producers inevitably shift production abroad and ship finished goods back to the United States? Shipping consumes energy. Last year countless tons of goods entered our ports, some on efficient cargo ships and rail, and much on inefficient trucks and planes.

Conservation tip — buying local goods is a simple way you can shave 400-500 lbs off your own carbon footprint.

These factors might lead you to believe that an open immigration policy is good for the environment. But there’s a twist in the form of carbon emissions and their problematic connection to wealth.

Many immigrants come to the U.S. and live a simple lifestlye, but quickly earn enough to become part of the American dream. And with wealth that comes cars, houses, flights home, and higher carbon emissions. The so-called “consumption effect” could actually outweigh the transportation effect of foreign production. The troubling implication is that decreased poverty is potentially bad for the environment.

So like most aspects of immigration, this is not an easy topic to solve — but it is worth talking about, and worth understanding your own role. Certainly when buying your asparagus and strawberries, buying local is the most patriotic and pollution-limiting thing you can do.

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