New figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the UK has become the biggest importer of carbon dioxide emissions in the G7. As the UK’s economy has moved away from domestic manufacturing over the last three decades the emissions we produce have fallen, something celebrated as an indication of our move towards a more environmentally friendly economy. But the goods we are importing come at a massive hidden carbon cost.
The UK now imports 5.1 tonnes of CO2 per person – up from 1.7 tonnes in 1992. This is a significant increase and something we should all be concerned about if we are to meet the target to stay below 2 degrees of warming set out in the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Some models argue that we should be aiming for a carbon budget of 1.5 tonnes per person by 2050. We have a long way to go to achieve this target as the average UK resident’s current carbon footprint is 10 tonnes.
The UK government has claimed that its emissions have already fallen by 42% compared to 1990 levels. As well as not including ‘imported emissions’, this figure does not include international aviation or shipping, an approach which Greta Thunberg recently referred to as ‘creative accounting’. Some estimates suggest that to stand any chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees we must reach net zero carbon emissions globally by 2050 whilst others, including Wen’s local Tower Hamlets council, have committed to reach net zero by 2025. As one of a small number of nations that has been burning fossil fuels for over 150 years, there is an argument to say that we should be reducing emissions faster than others since we have used so much more. Meeting these targets will require changes in the ways we eat, travel, live, and use land and resources in our day to day lives and as a society.
It is hard to imagine a society which is radically different to the one we live in. The struggle to deal with climate change is partly a struggle of imagination, of trying to believe that real alternatives are possible. Faced with such a huge challenge, the temptation to focus on pushing down the numbers nationally rather than taking responsibility for our role in emissions on a global scale is a real problem. It is easy to fall into thinking not about how we can create a more sustainable and globally equitable way of living from the ground up, but how we can sustain business as usual, even if this has negative impacts outside the UK. Reducing our national carbon emissions by outsourcing the production of goods to other countries is just one example of this. Another key example as we talk about moving to cleaner electric powered technologies in the UK is the exploitation of limited natural resources including lithium and cobalt needed to make the battery technology necessary for this, and the human rights issues surrounding the extraction of those resources.
It is easy to fall into thinking not about how we can create a more sustainable and globally equitable way of living from the ground up, but how we can sustain business as usual, even if this has negative impacts outside the UK.
For sure, low carbon technologies must form an important part of the picture, but for those interested in social justice we have to question the temptation to limit our aims to cleaning the emissions out of the same systems of inequality and consumption that have created the climate crisis in the first place. We cannot claim climate action success nationally whilst the imported goods and resources used in the UK saddle countries in the global south with our emissions and the destructive impacts of extraction, often with limited or no economic benefit to local people. It is a key part of feminist organising, to put the voices of those most affected at the centre of any solutions. To do this we need to go beyond looking just at our emissions numbers. We must move towards community led solutions that centre the voices of those most impacted here in the UK, but are based on an understanding of the interconnectedness of the global climate crisis and solidarity with those most affected globally. by Beth Summers and Maddy Evans (Wen’s Local Food Team)