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XR York Research Co-Ordinator and University of York student Will James takes a harrowing look at the numbers behind the climate catastrophe.

Australia is burning.

Areas of forest the size of European states are being destroyed and billions of animals killed, driving many of them towards extinction.

Climate change increases the incidence of extreme weather events (heat waves, droughts, wildfires), while temperature change threatens food security and causes water scarcity (Wesselbaum and Aburn, 2019). Temperature rises and scarce resources make conflict, both within and between groups, more likely (Burke et al., 2015), and climate change is already driving international migration to OECD countries (Wesselbaum and Aburn, 2019).Without significantly reducing emissions, with a binding goal of net zero emissions in the next few decades, the consequences will be disastrous, and in some places they already are. Therefore, reducing CO2 emissions is an urgent priority and has the potential to avoid suffering and death on a huge scale.

In order to have even a likely chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, global emissions in 2050 must be 40 – 70% lower than 2010 levels (Rogelj et al., 2018). Unfortunately, we are currently going in the wrong direction: global carbon emissions continue to rise, driven by growth in consumption and population. Optimistically, in the developed world, emissions have been largely stable since 1990, and in recent years there has even been a slight decline (Jackson, 2017); however, there is a significant problem with these figures; they systematically underestimated.

According to internationally observed guidelines specified by the IPCC, emissions are allocated “territorially”, which means they do not include the emissions embedded in imports (the CO2 emitted in order to produce them and transport them). The alternative – “consumption-based” emissions – allocates emissions to countries by final consumption (Consumption = Domestic Production + Imports – Exports). Effectively, this method measures a country’s carbon footprint. And when you compare the two measures, apparent reductions in emission vastly reduce. The UK, for example, reported a 30% reduction in emissions between 1990 and 2015; this drops to less than 10% when imported emissions are factored in (see figure 1) (GCP, 2017; BBC News, 2019). 

Figure 1

Although the UK’s carbon footprint has reduced, this is primarily the result of the decarbonisation of domestic energy production (BEIS, 2017). Renewable energy production has increased, whilst coal and coal extraction have reduced significantly (ibid.). This, however, has no impact on imported emissions, which nearly tripled in 1990-2015 and represent more than 30% of overall UK CO2 emissions (see figure 2) (GCP, 2017). Therefore, if current trends continue, policies targeting territorial emissions will become greatly less effective, as they will not address the majority source of the country’s carbon footprint (Barrett et al., 2013).

Figure 2

Effectively, emissions are being exported abroad, in a process known as “carbon leakage”, with international companies locating production in non-OECD countries where labour and environmental standards are frequently unacceptably bad. Aside from the human and environmental cost, this means that responsibility for CO2 emissions from consumption in rich countries is attributed to poorer nations, while the former are able to boast of progress in decarbonising. If we wish to have a just and equitable transition to a low-carbon world, we in rich countries must take responsibility for the consequences of our consumption; and, at the level of government and of the individual, we must take action to change how we live and consume.

Yet, the UK government rejected consumption-based accounting as a basis for policy in 2012 and, to the present day, measures emissions territorially. They publish consumption emissions separately from climate policy, and class them as “experimental” data (House of Commons, 2012; DEFRA, 2019). The government does not consider them “robust”, a point on which several academic authors disagree (Peters et al., 2011; Barrett et al. 2013). Furthermore, the government claims that there are few policy tools to address consumption emissions, as they can have little impact on production in other countries.

This ignores, however, the very obvious tool we have to address consumption emissions: changes in our consumption. An excellent example is changing what we eat. Reducing our meat consumption is perhaps the best means at our disposal to reduce our impact on the planet; raising livestock uses enormous amounts of land, causes water scarcity, and pollutes the environment. It is also one of the greatest drivers of biodiversity loss through habitat destruction (think of how Brazil clears the Amazon rainforest to raise cattle). A significant reduction in meat consumption would massively reduce our CO2 emissions, both domestic and imported, and would also improve our health. Yet the government avoids telling people how to eat, avoiding this “taboo” subject.

Another example is to move towards a circular economy by improving material efficiency, product durability and longevity. “Planned obsolescence”, a deliberate practice where companies design products to fail, break and become exhausted quickly so as to induce consumers to buy more, must be outlawed. Computers and smartphones are designed to be difficult and costly to repair, and are soon rendered out-of-date in terms of hardware and software by new releases (Apple is masterful at this). This horrendous practice is incredibly wasteful and encourages consumerist, throwaway behaviour, promoting pointless consumption for the sake of keeping the growth-addicted world economy rolling. Regulation on how products are made, requirements for durable and repairable designs and tax-breaks on materially efficient and long-lasting goods are all policy-options government could explore. Improving and increasing recycling would reduce the need to import raw materials such as aluminium, extracted at great social and environmental cost as well as producing large amounts of emissions.

In our current individualist and capitalist political climate, it seems it is taboo to ask if we are consuming too much. The government shies away from promoting low-meat diets, despite the wealth of evidence that they are essential for sustainability. We are encouraged to consume and work more, anything to keep the economy growing, while we are all faced with the reality that we are reaching the limits of what this planet can sustain. It is madness to attempt to decarbonise our societies without changing our unsustainable lifestyles and consumption; yet this is what we are asked to do, and meanwhile the government rejects an emissions measure that gives the true picture of our carbon footprint because there are “limited policy tools” available.

Whilst the UK government continues to use domestic emissions as a basis for policy, they can avoid the difficult and unpopular task of facing the unsustainability of our consumption. It is time that our leaders stopped boasting of emissions reductions on the basis of a misleading accounting method and started telling the truth about the true impact we have on the planet. Then, they, and we, must act now to change this system before it is too late to do so. Anything less amounts to denial. Rebel or die.

Join us every Tuesday at 7.30pm at Spark: York to find out more about Extinction Rebellion and how you can get involved.


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