Cutting carbon emissions or hiding them?
Submitted by Claire on Tue, 2014-01-21 10:25
A draft of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that emissions of carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases warming the planet grew twice as fast in the first decade of the 21st century as they did during the previous three decades. Much of that rise was due to the burning of coal, and much of that coal was used to power factories in China and other rising economies that produce goods for US and European consumers. The Guardian reports on this here, but the most striking thing about this is that it shouldn't be news: we know all about our 'consumption emissions' but sweep them under the carpet, preferring to focus on the fossil fuels we actually burn in this country. The 'Carbon Omissions' animation, created last year by PIRC, sets it out neatly:
The Committee on Climate Change explain that the exact measurement of consumption emissions is uncertain, but the overall picture is clear. The graph below is from their 2013 report, which contains some more detail on what we are consuming and from where. The purple dotted line represents the total emissions the UK produces: it is clear that the height of the bars, representing the emissions embedded in the goods and services we consume, is much greater. The blue portion of the bars represents those produced and consumed within the UK, while the red portion represents our imports. The gap between the purple dotted line and the blue bars is because some (not much) of our production emissions go on producing goods for export. It would be nice to think that the drop from 2008 to 2009 represented us getting our act together and choosing to consume a bit less wastefully. Sadly, it was in fact the impact of the recession. Between 1993 and 2010 our imported carbon emissions rose 38%.
What can we do about our hidden consumption emissions? Firstly, we need to talk about them and not perpetuate the myth that the UK has been more virtuous in cutting emissions than it actually has. There is a good news story in there. It is often said that we in the UK can do little about global emissions. There are three reasons why this is not true, and our consumption emissions is the first of these. The second is the investment that UK-based companies and investment funds make in fossil fuel burning around the world. The third is that, when exercised sensibly, we have some diplomatic leverage, 'soft power', particularly within the EU. Whether we can use this on climate change depends in large part on whether we are prepared to act effectively at a national level. We need to think globally, but without perpuating the myth of helplessness, and consumption emissions are part of that.
How we act as individual consumers is important: whether we perpetuate or challenge social norms about endless consumption and a throwaway society. But so is the behaviour of companies: where they source raw materials from, whether goods can be repaired or must be replaced. Ultimately policies such as built-in obsolescence are so profitable that government intervention must surely be necessary to change them.
Another good news story: as pointed out in the video above, it is a myth that consuming more stuff makes us happier. In fact it can make us less happy if linked to high levels of inequality in society. So, in theory, we can cut our consumption and waste without a negative impact on wellbeing. The question is whether we can overcome the massive vested interests that would seek to stop us doing so.