The UK’s minister for energy and clean growth wants to set the UK on a path to a ‘zero-carbon economy’. Marc Hudson and Joe Blakey from The University of Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute ask whether ‘zero-carbon’ will give zero-thought to the emissions from the international supply chains that underpin our economy.
- What does a ‘zero-carbon economy’ actually mean, and is it even achievable?
- It’s vital that emissions from consumption, shipping and aircraft aren’t ignored
- The Government might refer to ‘zero-carbon energy’, but should never refer to a ‘zero carbon economy’ if these additional dimensions remain unconsidered.
Last week Claire Perry MP, the UK’s minister for energy and clean growth said that she would look into setting the UK on the path to a ‘zero-carbon economy’. The announcement was made during the Commonwealth Heads of Government in London.
Perry said that, after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report on how the Paris agreement can be achieved, the UK government would ask the Climate Change Committee (the watchdog set up as part of the 2008 Climate Change Act) to look in to the matter.
How do you define zero?
But what does ‘zero-carbon UK’ – and in particular the so-called ‘zero-carbon economy’ actually mean? How might it be measured? Will we really be able to decouple our economy from planetary carbon emissions?
The urgent context of avoiding dangerous-levels of climate change cannot be overstated. Vanuatu was due to host the Commonwealth meeting but, with brutal irony, had to withdraw after Cyclone Pam hit in March 2015. In a submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Perry elaborated that “the UK will need to legislate for a net-zero emissions target at an appropriate point in the future to provide legal certainty on where the UK is heading.”
The move was inevitably welcomed by proponents of renewables. Emma Pinchbeck, of Renewable UK, said “investing now in renewable energy, better quality homes, cleaner and more efficient transport systems and smart technologies can help prevent the worst effects of climate change. What’s best for the planet can also turn out to be best for the economy and for people”.
Meanwhile, 26 other countries – including Brazil, Japan and Canada – have agreed to come up with strategies to the same effect, as part of the 2050 pathway platform, “a multi-stakeholder initiative launched at COP 22 … to support countries seeking to develop long-term, net zero-GHG, climate-resilient and sustainable-development pathways”.
2050 is tomorrow in geological terms, but it’s an age in politics – not many of those currently arguing for these targets will be in post to see the fruit, or otherwise, of their labour. But what is really politically problematic – is how ‘zero-carbon’ will be defined and what this will mean in terms of taking action to cut carbon emissions.
Sharing out responsibility
There are issues with the very meaning of ‘zero carbon’. The most important issue being ‘zero carbon’ what’? Carbon is emitted at all stages of the production, consumption, disposal and transportation of our goods and services. Beyond that, we’ve become increasingly keen on crossing geopolitical boundaries in aircraft. Deciding who should be responsible for these emissions, and where they should be allocated is problematic – and a thoroughly political decision.
As noted of Greater Manchester’s proclaimed ambition, most governments follow the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC in focusing on emissions from ‘direct’ point-source emissions (such as those from chimneys and exhausts) and those associated with our energy supply. It therefore seems pretty likely that Perry’s promise won’t consider the emissions that underpin our international supply chains – otherwise known as ‘consumption-based’ emissions. Simply put, the emissions in the production of your smart phone, or in the transport of lamb from New Zealand, probably won’t be counted anywhere.
The goal of a ‘zero-carbon economy’ is therefore troubling. The UK’s GDP is primarily driven by its service sector, which in turn relies on expansive global production networks that extend well beyond our borders. A lot of emissions-intensive production has been sent overseas, meaning the UK can be described as a net importer of emissions. As a result, even if the UK was ‘zero carbon’ (in terms of energy and direct emissions) our economic growth likely wouldn’t be. The tagline risks glossing-over the wider environmental impacts of our economic growth.
Even within the confines of what is usually counted, there’s little reason for optimism. The UK’s record on so-called ‘zero carbon homes’ is not good. The policy – which said that all new-build homes would have to be built to stringent energy efficiency standards – was announced in 2006 and then abandoned in 2015 before it even came into effect, under pressure from house-building companies and with little consumer support.
The ‘net’ in ‘net-zero emissions’ suggests that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) – technologies that remove carbon emissions – will be part of the wider vision. The problem here is that CCS has already come up against problems. In 2015 the plug was pulled at the last minute on a Government incentive scheme. And it doesn’t look likely it will make a reappearance.
There is also the potential problem that rhetoric about ‘zero carbon’ could, similar to mooted geoengineering and ‘negative emissions’ technologies, give people a false sense of security. They offer the shiny vision of a frictionless future in which existing habits of consumption and production, remain essentially unchanged.
Voters are left with the soothing sense that all is well, that the current system, with a tweak here, a nudge there, can deliver the sorts of steep emissions reductions that would deliver a 1.5-degree warmer world. Contrary to Pinchbeck’s remarks, what’s best for the planet might not be best for the economy – at least in the short term.
The next step is a report from the IPCC on how the international community can meet targets agreed in 2016. That’s due in September. The Committee on Climate Change roadmap will follow but possibly not before the next international negotiations (COP 24) in Katowice, Poland, in November.
In the meantime, it’s vital we keep asking policy makers ‘zero carbon what?’ so that emissions from consumption and international transport don’t end up being ignored. Let’s push for ‘zero’ to mean ‘something’.