The consumption conundrum

The government’s claims that Britain is reducing its CO2 emissions have been seriously undermined by a report from the Energy and Climate Change Committee.

Last week, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg declared that Britain was “turning the page on a culture of reckless consumption”.

“We are undergoing a profound transformation within our economy”, he said, “and for the first time ever our economic and environmental mantras are exactly the same: waste not, want not. Whether it’s waste of energy, waste of money, waste of our potential, we are focused on conserving our precious resources. Responsibility and sustainability are the watchwords of the day”.

Britain, he suggested, was winning the battle to rein in CO2 emissions and a new green future was just round the corner. It was heartening stuff for a gloomy cynic such as myself.

That view has now been challenged though by a report from the Energy and Climate Change Committee. The document claims that the UK’s record on cutting greenhouse gases is not as good as DECC figures suggest. It says DECC’s official CO2 figures – that count territorial emissions from power stations and transport, etc, within UK borders – show nearly  20 per cent reduction between 1990–2009. But research commissioned by the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reveals that CO2 emissions were 20 per cent higher in 2009 if consumption based emissions –  from imported goods – are included.

The report concludes that the fall in the UK’s territorial emissions “was not entirely or even mostly a consequence of the Government’s climate policy. Rather, it was mainly a result of the switch from coal to gas-fired electricity generation that began in the early 1990s, and the shift in manufacturing industries away from the UK in response to the pressures of globalised markets”.

It added: “The 9 per cent fall in the UK’s consumption-based emissions between 2008 and 2009 was primarily a result of the economic downturn, rather than of the UK’s policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Discounting the effects of the recession, the UK’s consumption-based emissions have been on an upward trend since 1990.”

And this is the problem. No matter what, if anything, is being achieved in terms of low carbon energy production, in getting homes more energy efficient and lowering transport emissions, the real challenge lies in a more inconvenient truth, that people are still buying too much stuff they don’t really need.

This makes a mockery of any attempt to reduce domestic CO2 emissions and is effectively outsourcing emissions and environmental damage to other countries.

As Friends of the Earth said in response to the report: “One of the main reasons why nations such as China have soaring carbon emissions is because they are making goods to sell to rich Western countries – this report highlights the UK’s role in creating this pollution”.

But how is this to be tackled? The report recommends “eco-labelling” of products in order to encourage more sustainable consumption.

It says: “Government should do more to make people aware of the consumption-based emissions data gathered by DEFRA. We recommend that DECC recognise the limitations of territorial emissions in trying to communicate to consumers how they can change their behaviour in order to reduce emissions globally. Even if an increased emphasis on consumption-based emissions has no impact on the UK’s local territorial emissions, the UK has to address its consumption if it is to make an effective contribution to a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”

But will the government be willing to address the real forces that drive this consumption? Labelling goods with their carbon impact sounds a bit like tacking a symptom rather than a cause. Would any government, particularly one that’s desperately trying to kick-start economic growth, dare try and address the real drivers of consumerism – the proliferation of advertising, the spread of easily accessible bargain retailers, the magazines and TV programmes pressurising us to buy the latest fashions and gadgets? It seems unlikely.

So, in an economic system that relies so heavily on consumer spending to boost growth, how can consumption ever be decoupled from carbon emissions? Answers on a sustainably-sourced postcard please (or just leave a message below).

  • Darren Oakley

    The answer may be in the theory of the ‘Circular Economy’ model…

    • planningmag

      Can you expand any on that?

  • Daniel Carins

    This letter was in The Guardian last week, on this very topic…

  • Josephine Ellis

    I wish you weren’t right and that it were possible for us all to cancel out all our environmental impacts simply by brandishing a “Bag for Life”. Seeing as I’d say you are right, however, it’s actually heartening to see someone acknowledging that we do have a conundrum on our hands. You can’t find a solution unless you admit that there’s a problem.