UK climate change mitigation strategies should fall into 3 categories:
Here’s the problem and a brief explanation:
The UK Government is focused on reducing GHG emissions in line with our commitments under the 2008 Climate Change Act and the Carbon Budgets that are set by the Committee on Climate Change as part of that process. These commitments are somewhat aligned to our commitments made as a member of the EU under the Paris Agreement, albeit our commitments to the UN via the EU INDCs is currently less ambitious (40% reduction in emissions compared to 1990 levels by 2030) than our own Carbon Budgets (meeting the fourth carbon budget will require that emissions be reduced by 50% on 1990 levels in 2025). See here for further details.
However, the above only covers what we emit here in the UK, but we are contributing to emissions, and thus climate change, in two other ways, but this gets ignored due to agreed international reporting standards: (1) when we export fossil fuels such as coal, oil or gas extracted here in the UK, which are then burned elsewhere, the country that burns them takes the hit; and (2) any emissions from the production of goods made elsewhere and then imported to the UK are reported in the country of origin (where the actual GHG emission has taken place). In this sense, since much of our goods are now manufactured in other countries, such as China, we are effectively outsourcing a significant amount of our GHG emissions.
UK policies aimed at mitigating the risks associated with climate change should therefore target both the supply and demand side, and should focus not just on direct emissions, but indirect emissions too. Otherwise we are simply pushing the problem onto another country, rather than addressing it. Think of one of those long balloons being shaped into an animal shape. Squeeze one end and it gets narrower, but the other end gets wider. We’re just moving the problem around. Let me explain in a little more detail what we mean by: (1) demand-side; (2) supply-side; and (3) indirect emissions.
(1) ‘Demand side’ climate change mitigation
All of the government’s focus is on emissions produced directly here in the UK. Policies are put in place to reduce demand in certain sectors here in the UK so that our reported emissions reduce in line with our national and international commitments. This extract from a 2013 report produced by the now abolished Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) explains:
“When emissions are reported by source, emissions are attributed to the sector that emits them directly. These high-level sectors are made up of a number of more detailed sectors, which follow the definitions set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC1), and which are used in international reporting tables which are submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) every year.”
UK greenhouse gas emissions by sector (% of total emissions 2013) are as follows:
- Energy supply (33.4%): Emissions from fuel combustion for electricity and other energy production sources.
- Transport (20.6%): Emissions from aviation, road transport, railways, shipping, fishing and aircraft support vehicles.
- Business (16.0%): Emissions from combustion in industrial/commercial sectors, industrial off-road machinery and refrigeration and air conditioning.
- Residential (13.7%): Emissions from fuel combustion for heating/cooking, garden machinery and fluorinated gases released from aerosols/metered dose inhalers.
- Agriculture (9.4%): Emissions from livestock, agricultural soils, stationary combustion sources and off-road machinery.
- Waste management (4.0%): Emissions from waste disposed of to landfill sites, waste incineration, and the treatment of waste water.
- Industrial processes(2.3%): Emissions from industry except for those associated with fuel combustion.
- Public (1.7%): Emissions from combustion of fuel in public sector buildings.
- Land use land use change and forestry (LULUCF) (-0.9%): Emissions from forestland, cropland, grassland, settlements and harvested wood products.
(2) ‘Supply side’ climate change mitigation
“The latest Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES) from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) reveals a nation in the midst of a low-carbon transition. However, it also shows that fossil fuel extraction increased for the first time in 15 years.” – Carbon Brief
None of the government’s focus is on emissions produced from the burning of fossil fuels in other countries, which are extracted here in the UK. Hey, it’s not our problem. What is it drug dealers always say? “If they didn’t buy from me they would get it from somewhere else.” I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that. As any law enforcement expert will tell you. If you want to eradicate drugs, you need to target the suppliers, even more so that the users. Cut off the supply and there are no drugs to take. Just focusing on drug users is a waste of time. As long as the drugs are out there, there will be plenty of takers.
But the view taken not only by the UK Government but by the whole international community, is that we can ignore how much coal, oil and gas we keep on extracting and supplying and just focus on lowering emissions in the country that burns them and directly produces those emissions. It’s an incredibly flawed logic, which is impossible to defend.
So why is climate change policy focused purely on the demand side, completely ignoring the supply side? The reason is simple. Governments have taken this approach because they are not yet willing to take the necessary steps of restricting the supply of fossil fuels, despite all scientific evidence suggesting that this is necessary if we are to have any chance of transitioning to a low-carbon global economy quickly enough.
Each government wants their cake and eat it. They want to dig up and sell coal, oil and gas whilst at the same time reducing their own emissions from coal, oil and gas. In short, they want to make gains at the expense of others. This is of course a ridiculous approach when the whole point of the exercise is to reduce emissions worldwide. Think again about the balloon. Until we stop putting air in, what’s the point of squeezing it in one place at the expense of another. We’re just moving the air around. Or in this case, moving the fossil fuels around.
There is of course an argument that if we can produce enough low-carbon energy, cheaply enough then the demand for the fossil fuels will reduce. This in fact is already happening in the case of coal, where there is now a very real risk of coal being minded and coal power plants being built that simply won’t be needed. But this is a very high risk strategy. It makes the challenge twice as hard. Renewable energy, electric vehicles etc. are having to complete with a very wealthy, powerful, influential and heavily subsidised fossil fuel industry. It’s not a level playing field. Politicians in many cases are compromised and working against a just transition to a cleaner, greener economy.
This is why we need brave politicians and policymakers to stand up against the fossil fuel industry and we’ve seen President Obama do towards the end of his second term. This is why scientists and NGOs focus so much of their time on campaigning to ‘Keep it in the ground’. It’s why there are so many calls for an end to subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, It’s why all the best thinkers and strategists in the field of climate policy are calling for a Carbon Price or Carbon Tax to gradually turn the screw to reduce the supply of fossil fuels over time. To gradually turn off the tap.
Of course this needs to be done in a controlled manner, so that the supply of fossil fuels reduces as the supply of low-carbon technologies increases. But right now we have more fossil fuels accounted for than we can hope to burn. The fact that oil & gas companies continue to search for new sources of fossil fuels totally contradicts any stated aims that we want to stabilise the planets’ climate before it’s too late.
(3) Climate change mitigation policies aimed at ‘indirect emissions’
When we factor in the emissions associated with imported goods, as well as emissions produced directly here in the UK, our emissions are in fact still increasing year-on-year. In fact, based on this measure our emissions, quite astonishingly, are the highest per capita of any country in the world.
It’s not enough to just transition our energy supply to renewable energy over the next 35 years whilst transforming our transport, heating and other sectors to run on electricity or other forms of direct, renewable energy if we are to maintain our current consumption levels and patterns. Policies are also required to reduce consumption of imported goods, and indeed reduce consumption overall. Where we do need to produce and consume goods, this needs to be done in the most efficient way, which means using less energy and less natural resources than is necessary. If we don’t, developing countries like China, India and others in the Global South have no chance themselves of reaching net zero emissions in the timescale required.
Globalisation means that other countries produce most of our goods for us now. Countries like China (which provides us with most of our manufactured goods), Bangladesh (clothes in particular), India (tea, technology, steel etc), African, Caribbean and South American countries (think of all the coffee and exotic food we consume). This is often due to cheaper wages and weaker regulation, but may also be due to better climatic conditions etc.
It’s no use the UK reaching net zero emissions by the second half of the century if emissions continue to rise in these developing countries, acting as the workhouses of the world, with their fast growing economies and fast growing populations. Just like the fossil fuel dilemma described above, we can’t expect these engines of the world to keep producing to feed current levels of consumption and still reduce their emissions as required. The challenge is simply too great.
Of course targeting consumption contradicts the primary aim of almost every government in the world, which is to deliver increased ‘prosperity’ by increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is the biggest challenge we face. How can we live within our planetary limits and deliver a society that works for all when our only focus is not on social wellbeing or environmental stability, but solely on GDP? The extreme form of capitalism that we have become used to over the last 40 years, often referred to as ‘neoliberalism’, must be confronted.