Best efforts to fight climate change

A piece in the Times (£) by Alice Thomson is the perfect illustration of how people’s horizons and thoughts about what can be achieved in politics are shaped by the political institutions under which they live.

People’s concern about the environment is expressed by their involvement in bee-keeping – the number of beekeepers in the UK has doubled in the last ten years – and preserving local woodland.  They are no longer concerned about climate change, she writes, because there is nothing they can do:

Since 1990 emissions have increased by half, despite Britain’s best efforts to drop a carbon footprint shoe size, because emerging countries are busy increasing theirs.

And at first sight, that’s how it looks.

CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita) (data World Bank)

CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita) (data World Bank)

Since 1990, per capita UK emissions have fallen while those of the rest of the world have risen.  Comparing one country against another shows that we are doing our bit but the others aren’t.

But look more closely.  The carbon emissions we are responsible for are not simply those that take place within our territory but those that take place on our behalf.  If carbon-intensive manufacturing industry moves from the UK to China, but British consumers still buy the resulting production, then the carbon emissions are still, in a sense, British.

Calculating emissions on this basis, so-called “embedded” emissions, tells a different story.  Far from being sufficient as Alice Thomson fondly imagines, British efforts to reduce carbon emissions are barely making a dent.

Comparison of consumption based CO2 emissions in 1993, 2004 and 2010 (data DEFRA)

Comparison of consumption based CO2 emissions in 1993, 2004 and 2010 (data DEFRA)

There has been a decline in the carbon emissions caused by heating our homes, and a bigger decline in the carbon emissions produced by British industry (thanks to the big decline in British industry itself).  Imported emissions, by contrast, have soared.  British consumers have merrily increased the demands they make of foreign companies – the crucial decisions about lifestyles are still keeping carbon emissions high.

Reporting data strictly country by country, as though there is no connection between them, shapes our thinking to persuade us, wrongly, that we are already doing enough.

Leaving the key decisions in the hands of national government also tells us that, even if we wanted to do more, there is nothing more we can do.  In this light, cultivating bees and protecting neighbourhood forests are the hallmarks of an environmentalist.

If something can’t be done by national governments acting independently, it cannot be done at all.  This is politics as the art of the possible.

But, if we refuse to accept that our responsibility to the environment stops at our own national borders, and if we reject the notion that national governments are the last word in environmental decision-making, then a different prospect appears.

Far from believing that we need not and cannot do anything to fight climate change, instead we need to create the new political institutions that can do so if national governments cannot.

We do not need to feel helpless in the face of the biggest environmental threat, and should not be distracted by worrying about smaller ones instead.  Federalists think of politics as the art of making possible whatever is necessary.  The institutional innovations needed to fight climate change are certainly necessary, and therefore we must make them possible.  That is what the best efforts to fight climate change would actually encompass.

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