Dr Ruth Wood of the University of Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute is presenting a seminar on Thursday 9th August, from 4pm. It’s called ‘Consuming Our Future: The Climate Change Impact of UK Consumers’. Part of Tyndall Manchester’s new series, it’s free, you don’t need to book and you can find more details about it here.
We caught up with her and threw some questions her way.
1) Legally, every country is responsible for its own production of emissions. The West has been spectacularly unwilling to cut them. What hope is there that they will agree to become responsible for their consumption (via the notion of “embedded carbon” etc)?
Kyoto signatories committed to reduce the GHG emissions produced within their territorial boundaries, and since 1990 it appears most countries are on track to meet their Kyoto targets by the end of this year. There are obviously limitations of Kyoto, not all countries particularly the USA ratified the treaty and the target was not in line with the more recent agreements to aim to avoid a global mean surface temperature increase of more than 2oC. Negotiating a new global agreement with binding territorial emission reduction targets, is it seems proving difficult.
Consumption-based emissions accounts count the amount of GHG associated with the goods and services consumed in a country – no matter where in the world the gases are physically emitted. Consumption-based emissions provide a complementary measure to territorial accounts, helping a country understand its wider responsibility for emissions in the world. While there may not yet get global agreement regarding a country becoming legally responsible for its consumption emissions, there is growing interest in understanding the global trade flows in carbon and how this could inform future policy. In the UK Defra have recently started publishing the UK’s consumption emissions and they have been the subject of the House of Common’s Environmental Audit Committee enquiry, so in terms of how the UK plans to take responsibility for its consumption emissions watch this space.
It’s not just Governments that can use consumption emissions information though, retailors and manufacturers have been using this information to try and reduce the carbon footprint of the goods and services they provide. This information provides the opportunity to work with supply chains to identify emission hot spots and alternative low emission ways of production.
Individuals can also use the information to make decisions on what they consume, not all goods may be carbon labelled but asking retailors about the environmental impacts of their products demonstrates that consumers are interested in the impacts and can help create consumer pressure to reduce the carbon impacts of products. In the interim, it is important to recognise that virtually everything we buy has an environmental impact, buying wisely - thinking twice before buying new items, buying it second hand or investing in a long lasting durable product can help reduce our consumption emissions.
2) Manchester City Council has stated that it will introduce a “Total Carbon Footprint” approach to its calculations – is that in-line with the sort of arguments you are making in this seminar?
MCC should be applauded for their actions on this. Understanding the full carbon impact of our lifestyles, then identifying where and how we can take appropriate action to reduce it is essential if we’re to seriously tackle climate change.
3) The blurb for the event mentions a new “scenario tool” about consumption and production – can you elaborate on that at all?
The scenario tool was developed to support a project examining the emisisons impact of future food funded by the Sustainable Consumption Institute
It enables a range of researchers and stakeholders to pool their expertise to estimate the impacts of different energy and technology futures on the greenhouse gases embodied in the goods and services we consume in the UK. The tool also allows the users to explore how different patterns and levels of consumption could change the total consumption emissions in the UK. Combining estimates of how both the emissions intensity of consumption could be reduced by technology alongside changes in future consumption patterns enables us to understand the relationship between the two and inform policy that addresses both consumption and production.
4) The blurb also mentions (over)reliance on technological fixes and “exponential growth.” What’s the matter with economic growth, from a climate change perspective (and any other perspective you care to add!)
It’s often assumed that technology can fix climate change, that if we could just get the right technology in place the problem would be solved. There are at least two problems with this premis: firstly, it takes time to get technology in place and in that time, emissions are still rising and eating into the cumulative carbon budget that we have to adhere to to avoid 2oC; secondly even with a largely decarbonised energy system, the rate at which the population is growing and consuming mean that even though per unit of consumption the emissions may be lower than they were, because we’re consuming more, in absolute terms, the resultant emissions are higher than they need to be to avoid 2oC.
At the moment, economic growth is still correlated (albeit less than it was) to the use of carbon intensive-energy and resources, unless we can completely decouple the production of goods and services from greenhouse gas emissions, then the logic is inescapable.