Outsourcing emissions, offshoring tax – both iniquities demand our attention

A version of this piece, by Alex Randall and Guy Shrubsole, first appeared on Liberal Conspiracy.

The news that global emissions continue to skyrocket is a solemn reminder that climate change, though absent from the headlines of late, remains the world’s most intractable and urgent problem.

One might think, given the government’s recent announcement of targets to cut Britain’s emissions in half by 2025, that we have our own house fully in order. Think again – the new targets contain a major loophole allowing our emissions to carry on going up, even while the government claim they are going down.

Fresh research from the Carbon Trust – and a tranche of government briefings which weobtained recently under the Freedom of Information Act – show how Britain has managed to partially outsource its carbon emissions to other countries where they are beyond regulation and measurement.

It works rather nicely for the government and British consumers that for a number of reasons the UK’s high emitting activities have moved abroad: cheaper labour costs; less stringent environmental regulations; the globalisation of markets and the UK’s shift from manufacturing to a service economy.

It’s convenient in helping to make it appear that the UK is reducing its emissions.

It’s clear that we’ve also outsourced a lot of industrial accidentstoxic recycling processesand localised pollution problems. We’re all happy to consume the cheap goods that result from this. Disrupting this myth benefits no-one – apart from people in developing countries, future generations, and the planet itself, of course.

But perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, Britain has a long history of moving things offshore, as Nick Shaxson has shown in his insightful survey of tax havens, Treasure Islands.

As the book shows, going offshore isn’t just about avoiding tax – it’s also about avoiding regulations and scrutiny. In outsourcing our emissions we achieve exactly the same: they lie outside the remit of British climate regulations and are less able to be easily measured or addressed.

As Canadian academic Peter Dauvergene argues in his book The Shadows of Consumption, slippery labour and capital markets, too, tend to push the environmental and social costs of production into poorer countries and away from the eyes of rich consumers.

The government can begin by being honest about the problem and start measuring outsourced emissions. But altering the circumstances that lead to them, and the injustices they incur, is going to take a while longer.

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