After MPs criticised DECC for not considering the embodied carbon of imported goods, Sarah-Jayne Russell argues that behaviour change is impossible if we're not honest about environmental impacts
It was disappointing to read the energy and climate change select committee’s report into how DECC measures the UK’s greenhouse-gas (GHG) output and see Greg Barker’s testimony that if consumption-based emissions reporting was to be anything more than an “intellectual curiosity” the department would have “severe problems”.
The energy department’s approach is to consider only emissions generated within our borders, avoiding in their entirety the increasing amount of GHGs created overseas in making the goods and services we import and use in the UK.
The select committee highlighted the perverse situation of having DECC proudly announce that as a country we are producing 19% less GHGs than in 1990, while Defra publishes figures showing that consumption-based emissions generated in other countries has risen 20% over the same period.
How can the government convince the public, industry or other policymakers, of the urgent need to reduce our environmental impacts if the department dedicated to energy and climate change is communicating only half the story?
I’m not arguing in favour of doom and gloom messages of our terrible wasteful existence, because that’s no way to engage people or businesses either. But we are living in a spectacularly unsustainable way, and the government needs to help organisations and individuals to understand that the goods we buy, be it mobile phones, clothes or mangoes grown in Mexico, has an environmental impact. Ignoring the emissions we cause to be created overseas and then telling us that we’re reducing our carbon footprint is unhelpful and a skewed version of reality.
I recently began reading the IEMA Handbook, and was struck by Mark Everard’s introductory chapter in which he discusses photosynthesis and respiration; the way in which the natural world harnesses and uses the energy produced by the sun.
It’s a marvellous piece of chemistry:
6 CO2 + 6 H2O + energy → C6H12O6 + 6 O2
carbon dioxide + water + energy = glucose + oxygen
C6H12O6 + 6 O2 → 6 CO2 + 6 H2O + energy
glucose + oxygen = carbon dioxide + water + energy
It’s a reminder that carbon dioxide has a vital place in nature, but that life is all about balance. In living our lives and running our businesses we create carbon dioxide, that’s a fact. In buying goods and services, however, it can be easy to forget that emissions are being generated because the production process is often far removed from our experiences.
DECC’s failure to consider these emissions in its climate change assessment, risks propagating the attitude that these GHGs don’t count and moves us further away from adopting more sustainable buying behaviour. If we don’t understand the environmental impacts of our choices how can we improve them?
Looking at emissions created by supply chains is not easy, but increasing numbers of big business are attempting to do it and are finding great partnership opportunities to cut emissions and costs.
If DECC doesn’t begin to really consider the UK’s equivalent of its scope 3 emissions, then it is sending entirely the wrong message to organisations. Here’s hoping DECC and Barker take a close look at the select committee’s report and realise that they cannot keep ignoring offshore emissions, because they are definitely not going away.