EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

The British ministers have recently decided that the country should use past overperformance in the reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions to relax the targets set out in the plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.


The plan to tackle climate change entails the commitment of the government to a series of five-year “carbon budgets“ that limit the country’s CO2 emissions to a certain level. The cap of the second carbon budget that ran from 2013 to 2017 was 2784 megatons of carbon dioxide. During this period, Britain emitted 384 megatons below the limit of the second carbon budget as published by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy in late May. Mr Hammond, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, requested that a portion of the overperformance amounting to 88 megatons of carbon emissions should be carried forward to breach the limit of the next carbon budget between 2023 and 2027.


From a broader perspective, the UK’s climate action can be evaluated rather positively, with satisfying performance in the second carbon budget highlighting overall progress in climate protection. In early May, the country passed one week without coal power for the first time since 1882. Britain seems to be taking serious steps in lowering its emissions to protect the atmosphere, with the net zero emissions by 2050 target being the cherry on top of the country’s efforts.


However, researchers at the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds outline a more dire perspective. Once accounted for consumption, the UK’s emissions remained stagnant in the period between 1990 and 2010. As the report published by the Energy and Climate Change Committee outlines, “…the rate at which the UK’s consumption-based emissions have increased have far offset any emissions savings from the decrease in territorial emissions. This means that the UK is contributing to a net increase in global emissions.” When we include the global emissions produced during the course of making things like cars, TVs or smartphones that are bought in the UK, the carbon footprint of Britain rises significantly.


The case of the UK mirrors the trend followed by many developed countries that have outsourced a significant part of their carbon dioxide emissions overseas. Importing the goods like cement or steel from factories in China or elsewhere reduces the carbon pollution produced within the borders of the UK, but not the overall UK’s carbon pollution. As the research of environmental consultancy Global Efficiency Intelligence estimates, 25% of the world’s total emissions are now being outsourced in this manner which puts into question the positive results reported by the UK, the EU or other members of the international community.


In light of these facts, many questions remain unanswered. Given that a significant amount of the overperforming was due to the outsourcing of emissions to other countries, the decision of Mr Hammond seems to lack trustworthy rationale and credibility.


On a more serious note, the systemic question arises, whether the targets set by the UK government should encompass the emissions caused by local consumption, where not much progress has been made. When interviewed by BBC, Lord Deben, the chair of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change explained that territorial emissions accounting might not be perfect, but it respects the scope of influence that can be exercised by the government. The UK only controls its home-grown emissions, while the manufacturing methods and energy choices in China can hardly be influenced by the UK.


However, climate change is a rather complex issue to tackle because it requires collective action of all states. International cooperation has proven hard to establish thus far, with American president leaving the Paris agreement during the first days in the office a good representation of the current state of affairs.

Focusing merely on domestic pollution of the atmosphere runs against the need for cooperation if domestic targets are met at the expense of increased emissions of other states. The very nature of the problem presupposes that states should be mindful not only of the climate pollution above their land but also about climate pollution elsewhere. The first step in doing so is a recognition of the impact consumption has on emissions caused elsewhere.


Thus it seems the states should include the data on consumption-based emissions in their decision-making process. One opportunity to do so appears in trade. When goods are produced in the EU, for instance, the producers are subject to strict controls of emissions – they have to pay for the carbon they produce, for example. The manufacturing processes that are used to produce the goods in these countries are less carbon-intensive and, thus, more mindful towards the climate. Focusing on diminishing the overall, not just production-based, carbon footprint would mean that states could prioritize goods manufactured in countries where production is less polluting. This can typically be done through imposing tariffs on goods that are produced in a carbon-intensive way.


As Guardian writes, this would be difficult under the World Trade Organisation’s laws that are concerned about the impact of such tariffs on foreign market competitiveness. The emissions due to consumption can be challenged and possibly lowered by consumers themselves.

Adjusting spending habits to prioritise domestically produced goods over the ones that came on a ship that burnt fossil fuels during the transportation can be an example of a policy with small but immediate effects.

Turning to the consumers themselves and their spending behaviour can be a useful way to approach the problem of emissions caused by consumption. Society-wide approaches to nudge customers to be more climate-mindful in their behaviour are not novel in the EU. One successful example of such intervention is the introduction of 5p. charge for plastic bags in supermarkets, which reduced the demand for plastic bags by 86% in the UK ́s 7 biggest supermarket chains alone, which has taken over 9 billion plastic bags out of circulation. On estimate, this reduced the plastic bag marine pollution by 50%. Understanding the impact of domestic consumption on the total emissions of a country can motivate governments to approach this problem; the means for doing so are vast from public communication to 5p. charge for plastic bags in the supermarkets.

Miňo Urbaník

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