Carbon colonialism must be challenged for climate progress
A Brief Summary
Climate targets set by the UK government focus on reducing emissions from within the country. Currently, UK laws regulating emissions only apply to domestically produced products, Whilst imported products are subject to voluntary standards - meaning the companies that make them do not have to report their emissions. The dirtiest and most carbon-intensive industries such as fast fashion and construction, are transplanted to developing countries like India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Cambodia.
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The success of the United Nations Climate Conference COP26 has been mixed, but none has been totally good. UN Secretary-General António Guterres termed achieving the Paris Agreement's objective of limiting global warming to 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels as "on life support," while reports released after the summit suggested the world is on course for "disastrous levels" of global warming. Some have responded by calling for more stringent targets, but as the chief executive of the UK's Climate Change Committee pointed out, this is only going to "widen the gap between ambition and delivery."
This issue is at the heart of the developed world's efforts to combat climate change. The UK, for example, committed to decreasing carbon emissions by 78 percent compared to 1990 levels when it announced its sixth carbon budget in April 2021. According to the government, this "enacts the world's most ambitious climate change target."
However, these goals will never be able to adequately address the climate catastrophe unless the implicit "carbon colonialism" that underpins the UK's approach to climate change is addressed first. Carbon is monitored in a two-tiered manner here: strictly within UK borders and significantly less so beyond them.
In the light of the global crisis of climate change, this approach to the country's carbon footprint makes little sense. Around 22% of worldwide carbon emissions are attributed to the production of commodities such as clothing and electronics that are ultimately consumed in another country. The United Kingdom is a significant user of "imported emissions" like these, ranking third in the world. Nonetheless, the UK government's climate ambitions are centred on lowering emissions within the country.
Currently, UK emissions laws only apply to domestically manufactured products, whereas imported products are subject to voluntary guidelines, which means that manufacturers are not required to declare their emissions accurately. This promotes emissions to be "outsourced" to other countries. Fast fashion and construction, two of the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive businesses, are being exported to developing countries like India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia.
Because many claims in these nations go unquestioned, UK companies that want to seem green can more readily make claims like "zero deforestation" or "zero waste to landfill" in their supply chains - even if they're false. A disturbing example is human and environmental exploitation related to cobalt mining for phone parts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
These industries' emissions have vanished in terms of national targets, contributing to the so-called success of the UK's decarbonisation programme. They haven't gone anywhere, though, from the perspective of the planet.
Chains of distribution
There's one more problem to deal with. Because multinational supply chains are inherently hazy, determining their full scope is difficult. They span national borders, often involving numerous enterprises, and are quantified differently in different nations. Calculating the emissions in these networks is therefore politically and technically difficult.
However, there are no incentives for individuals participating in supply chains in the United Kingdom to detail the complicated processes and people involved. As a result, many supply chains are reported to both the government and customers in a highly simplified manner, allowing businesses to appear more compliant with emissions standards than they are.
This approach conceals the true lengths travelled by raw materials in supply chains, as well as the true environmental effect of the products they produce. Even industry leaders like Stella McCartney agree that establishing the provenance of the materials used to produce their clothes is "very challenging."
This system requires a complete redesign, especially in light of the government's announcement that shipping emissions will be included in the UK's net-zero targets. Current estimates of the length of shipping supply chains – and thus the emissions they emit – in the textile industry are substantially underestimated.
If the UK is to meet its carbon targets, supply chains must be better regulated, with less dependence on voluntary reporting of what happens within them. We also need to confront the carbon colonialism that continues to affect environmental policy in order to effectively address the climate catastrophe. Our environmental footprint, like the way we measure it, should not begin or finish at our borders.