How to cut carbon in China

This piece was originally published on the 10:10 blog.

Factoid of the day: China builds about 8 coal power stations a month. Lesser known fact: roughly 2-3 of these power stations are built to make stuff for us in the rest of the world to consume. That’s right: between a quarter and a third of China’s emissions are ultimately the responsibility of us shoppers in the west and elsewhere. China may be the world’s biggest emitter, but it is also the world’s workshop – meaning we’ve happily outsourced a big chunk of our carbon eastwards.

This is an inconvenient truth for the UK government. For years it has proudly claimed that British emissions are declining – which is true, if you close one eye and only look at domestic figures. But factor in the hidden, outsourced CO2, and you get a different picture: they’re still rising. And, according to yet-to-be-published calculations by the Carbon Trust, they’re set to rise further.

The think tank I work for, PIRC, has been investigating how much the government really knows about this tricky issue. It turns out they know more than they care to let on. Through a series of Freedom of Information requests, we’ve uncovered a stash of briefings from civil servants warning Ministers of the growing problem. “Increased emissions from UK consumption could cancel out the progress that we have made in reducing domestic carbon emissions”, says one such briefing.“Government policy has much less leverage over emissions that occur abroad”, points out another. “Nevertheless”, it admits, “we recognise that we do have a certain amount of control over emissions from abroad, as this is where many of our products come from. Consumer demand can be a powerful influence on manufacturers.”

Quite so. In fact the good news is we can all do something about this.

As users of the excellent 10:10 carbon calculator will know, the average Briton’s emissions stand at around 15 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person. A good chunk of this tonnage isn’t emitted in the UK. But our buying decisions will have an impact on demand, wherever a good or service is created. So we can buy greener products, look out for energy-efficiency ratings and carbon labels and be more conscious in our consumption.

But we also need to be aware that energy efficiency improvements alone have not been enough to offset growth in consumptionin the past. As another government briefing states: “While technological efficiency has improved the CO2 impacts of our products since 1992, the rise in UK consumption has outstripped the improvements achieved.” In other words, we need to think seriously about making products last longer, and simply buying less stuff – not just greener versions of the same stuff. Fortunately, decluttering our lives need not mean being any less happy – quite possibly the reverse.

The other thing everyone can do to tackle this problem is to press for political action, and ensure that the government starts measuring these hidden emissions publicly. This is of course only a first step: there will need to be plenty of further discussions about policies to reduce outsourced emissions and how best to share the burden of cost between countries. But the coalition has committed itself both to being the ‘greenest government ever’ – and to radical transparency in how it presents public data. If it’s to keep these promises, it needs to start taking the scandal of outsourced emissions seriously.

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