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Higher imports - and lower emissions - is not the answer

by Simon Maxwell | Overseas Development Institute
Friday, 29 May 2020 15:48 GMT

People are seen on the beach in New Brighton in front of a cargo ship, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), New Brighton, Britain, May 21, 2020. REUTERS/Phil Noble

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To genuinely curb climate change we need to fly and drive less, eat less meat - and make sure what we buy is genuinely low carbon

Simon Maxwell is a senior research associate at the Overseas Development Institute.

The average Briton, when not stuck at home in lockdown, contributes nearly 13 tonnes of carbon dioxide or its climate-change-driving equivalents to global warming each year, close to twice the global average, and the equivalent to the weight of a single-decker bus.

Of that total, 43% is imported, in the form of consumer goods or raw materials like steel and cement. That reliance on imports is new. In 1990, the imported share was only 15%. Other developed countries show a similar pattern.

These numbers have three big implications.

First, reducing atmospheric pollution produced at home is of little help if overall consumption, including those imported emissions, does not change.

The overall footprint of the UK has hardly changed since 1990. Why? Some production of more pollution-intensive tasks have been off-shored, mainly to China, externalising environmental costs.

But more importantly, population has risen, and so have living standards. The solution is clear: drive less; eat less meat; fly less; waste less.  The Committee on Climate Change, which provides independent advice to the UK Government, recommends all these steps if the UK is to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Second, the spotlight is now on reducing the carbon content of consumption. Measuring and reporting on carbon content is well established, thanks to initiatives like the GreenHouse Gas Protocol.

In the UK, it is mandatory under the Companies Act 2006 to report on direct emissions within enterprises, and on energy use. New reporting arrangements were introduced in 2019 and more than 12,000 UK businesses are now covered. 

The next big step will be to extend reporting all the way along supply chains.

These indirect, so-called ‘Scope 3’, emissions are difficult and expensive to measure when direct and indirect suppliers are spread around the world. But many companies are now using emissions measurement to set targets and support decarbonisation strategies.

For example, Swire beverages reduced the packaging weight of soft drinks by 34%, and invested in more efficient refrigerators for retailers, saving up to 40% of electricity costs. Betty and Taylors, marketing tea and coffee, have worked with farming households in Kenya, Uganda and Malawi, to improve productivity and reduce pollution.

However, implementing certifications and protocols may have ramifications down the supply chain. There is some evidence of developing country companies outsourcing to other countries: a ban on domestic tanning factories led to India and China importing raw and tanned leather from Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.

Developing countries worry whether they have any say in what standards are adopted, and whether expensive rich country norms will be imposed. They fear a ‘green squeeze’.

If exporters do not comply, regulators are waiting in the wings with proposals for border carbon taxes. The European Union is working these up in the context of its Green Deal proposals, mainly to protect its own industries if carbon standards rise. Aluminium, steel and cement are the products most at risk, with Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa all in the firing line.

Developing countries need to act fast. But standards drive innovation. Companies which are ahead of the game in carbon certification may lower costs and increase competitiveness. Poor countries need access to technology, as well as finance, to support transition.

Finally, the new focus on consumption emissions challenges the international climate negotiations. The UK House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology is among those insisting that international commitments should not be met by offshoring emissions.

Why not ask countries to make commitments and set budgets for the damage being done by their consumption?

The landmark climate talks in Paris in 2015 resulted in only a third of the pledged emissions cuts needed to hold warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and only a sixth of those needed for 1.5 degrees. The COVID-19 crisis has suppressed economic activity and will lead to the first significant fall in carbon emissions for a generation. But that will not last - and a global depression is not the way to deal with the climate cataclysm.