OPINION: Greta Thunberg is right – there’s a big problem with net zero targets

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Climate change activist Greta Thunberg delivers a speech at a climate change protest march, as COP25 climate summit is held in Madrid, Spain, December 6, 2019. REUTERS/Javier Barbancho
Climate change activist Greta Thunberg delivers a speech at a climate change protest march, as COP25 climate summit is held in Madrid, Spain, December 6, 2019. REUTERS/Javier Barbancho

Outsourcing and then washing our hands of carbon emissions hollows out net zero goals. We must do better

Alexander Carnwath is Head of Policy and Advocacy at Traidcraft Exchange.

Greta Thunberg lambasted the UK this week on its “creative carbon accounting”.  And she’s got a point.

The teenage climate activist lashed out at “30 years of blah blah blah” from leaders who are failing to take sufficient action to save the planet. “This is not about some expensive politically correct green act of bunny hugging or blah blah blah,” she said. “Net zero by 2050, blah blah blah.”

In the build-up to hosting this October’s crucial COP 26 conference, the UK government has shown off its climate leadership credentials, with frequent references to Net Zero – a commitment to counterbalance the country’s total carbon emissions by removing an equal amount from the atmosphere. As the first major economy to enshrine this in law in 2019, the government presents this as evidence of its world-leading ambition.

That’s fine up to a point. Net Zero is an important step, and we need to get there as soon as possible. But there is a problem with making Net Zero a shining talisman of climate action without recognising its limits.   Like many wealthy nations committing to Net Zero policies, Britain’s target covers emissions created within its national borders but does not account for emissions released in the production of goods that it imports.

These emissions – often described as ‘exported’ or ‘offshored’ – account for almost half of the total carbon footprint from goods and services consumed in Britain. By 2050, it is predicted that could rise as high as 80%. But there is no equivalent ‘net zero’ target for the UK to tackle them.

This issue goes to the heart of how to account for carbon in a complex international economy. Under the current system, it must be acknowledged, the UK’s target does cover emissions released domestically for the goods that it produces for export. And in a sense, that seems reasonable.

But when you take into account that the UK grew rich through industrial production but has since become a service-based economy, it appears much less so.  It means that the UK, and other countries which import a high proportion of the goods that they need, can essentially ignore a large proportion of the emissions they contribute to globally, leaving it to their trading partners – including much poorer countries – to deal with them.

The UK government does measure these emissions. These are reported on by the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), and the government acknowledges that the UK must recognise the role it plays in their production.

“We are all consumers …. as such, we are accountable to some degree for the pressures which our consumption puts on the environment,” it said in a report earlier this year. But a target and a process in the UK for cutting them is conspicuous by its absence.

In order to demonstrate true climate leadership credentials therefore, the UK government needs to put such a target in place. This should not replace the Net Zero target, nor the current system of accounting for territorial emissions in the UN climate negotiations. But it should complement it, addressing a major shortcoming of the UK’s current climate policy, and ensuring that the UK takes a truly global approach to the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

There is a particular onus on the UK to step up on this issue. It is currently the highest importer of carbon emissions per capita in the G7, and the disparity in its levels of production and consumption emissions is only going to increase. And as host of COP26, it needs to start owning up to the environmental consequences of its consumption, rather than pushing the onus back onto poorer countries who are less well equipped to deal with them.

This is not to suggest that today’s manufacturing economies bear no responsibility for the emissions released within their borders. And it should not undermine current territorial emissions-based systems for global carbon counting which will play such a crucial part in the forthcoming COP. But it does point the way to greater collaboration on global emissions.

In setting a target to reduce its offshored emissions, and then taking the steps to do so, the UK should make it a priority to provide financial and technical support for our trading partners, and especially countries in the Global South, to decarbonise their industries.

Only through international collaboration, rather than outsourcing and then washing our hands of carbon emissions, will we make genuine progress in slashing emissions. By taking this approach, the UK can genuinely stake a claim to shared global leadership on climate change.