Friday, 14 December 2018

The Carbon Lie, part one

Officially, the United Kingdom has been stunningly successful in reducing its carbon footprint. Despite green-lighting fracking and the expansion of Heathrow, Britain’s CO2 emissions have fallen by 38% since 1990 and are now as low as they were when Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890.

However, this is a lie. Not in the sense the UK government is fiddling the figures, though many claim that emissions from major infrastructure projects are deliberately miscounted, but because the UK has only achieved this reduction in emissions because it has outsourced them to other countries.

Britain has gone through rampant and conscious deindustrialisation over the last three decades. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, manufacturing made up 30% of the economy and employed 6.8 million people. By 2010, at the end of the last Labour government, it had shrunk to 11 per cent of GNP and had a workforce of just 2.5 million.

However, people have not learned to live on fresh air. Many of the products that were once made in Britain are now imported. This increases CO2 emissions in two ways – one because the manufactured products and commodities may be made or extracted under worse environmental conditions than might have been the case domestically (though still often under the aegis of western-based multinationals) and two because they have to be transported thousands of miles across oceans, usually by container ship, to their end markets.

Embodied emissions between China and the UK, for example, increased by 333% between 1995 and 2015. The kind of products traded in this manner includes both industrial goods – steel and cement for example – but also consumer items such as toys, trainers, clothes and office equipment.

Thus, while the UK’s territorial carbon emissions have been slashed, primarily because of domestic deindustrialisation, the overall carbon footprint that the UK is responsible for, which includes so-called embodied or traded emissions, has not. According to a report on the ‘Carbon Loophole’ from August 2018:

The UK’s territorial CO2 emissions have been declining for decades, and it has been one of the few countries able to report a decline in absolute emissions. However, considering the embodied carbon in imports, this apparent success is partly reversed. The total carbon footprint, inclusive of embodied CO2 in imports, has slightly increased since 1990.

Clearly, the UK is not alone, though its rate of deindustrialisation, and thus reliance on trade, is extreme. In the US, for example, embodied carbon imports grew rapidly from the 1990s onwards but declined following the 2008 financial crisis and have plateaued since then. The EU and Japan paint a similar picture. Thus, while the advanced capitalist countries officially claim they are mitigating climate change, they are in fact doing the opposite. As the report says:

Remarkably, in all cases, changes in emissions embodied in imports are comparable to or larger than changes in domestic emissions. Thus, under a consumer responsibility principle, developed countries have not recorded a decrease from 1990 levels, but rather an increase.

This deception arises from the fact that when countries report their greenhouse gas emissions they do so on the basis of their territorial emissions only. The emissions generated in the production of goods for trade go towards the territorial emissions of the country they are produced in (say China or India). And the emissions generated by transporting the products to developed country markets are not counted at all. This is an unfortunate oversight considering that emissions from shipping are predicted to double or even triple by 2050 (see executive summary).

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that caused a sweeping gnashing of teeth for almost 48 hours stated that unless greenhouse gas pollution was reduced by 45% by 2040 and by 100% by 2050, coastlines would be inundated by rising seas and droughts and food shortages would become rampant. The IPCC said there was “no documented historical precedent” for the economic transformation that is required. Tragically, such an economic metamorphosis is even more difficult if the nature of the problem is misunderstood in the first place – if we are labouring under the misconceptions of, in Naomi Klein’s words, “a vastly distorted picture of the drivers of global emissions”.

What lies at the root of these misconceptions is an obdurate belief in the beneficence of global trade. International trade, in the dominant liberal-capitalist mind-set, is seen as both the wellspring of wealth and prosperity and a guardian against the dark forces that will be unleashed if it is impaired.

Unfortunately, the Left, too, seems woefully under-prepared for the scale of the transformation that is called for.

Which will be the subject of Part Two of this post.

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