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Greta Thunberg recently castigated Parliament for hiding behind “very creative carbon accounting”, in order to fulfil its climate goals. By failing to account for imported emissions, Britain, along with other developed countries, is effectively ‘outsourcing’ its emissions. Official government statistics report that as of 2016, Britain produced about 373 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. However, according to the Global Carbon Project, calculated from a consumption perspective, Britain consumes about 40% more carbon emissions than it produces. 

As such, domestic targets which focus on production are insufficient as they fail to account for cross-border emissions. For example, the 82 million tonnes of imported emissions from China do not count as “British”. As Professor McLaren of Lancaster University argues, this parochial focus on net-zero could result in delayed emissions cuts and an insufficient focus on developing negative emissions technologies. How then should Britain respond?

First, Britain needs to take full responsibility for all of its emissions, not just emissions that occur within its borders. This requires a shift towards the inclusion of consumption-based emissions figures in national statistics. The process of adopting consumption-based emissions is already well underway in many cities and states, most notably Oregon which published a state-wide consumption-based report in 2015. 

Second, Britain should use trade deals as a tool to encourage exporting countries to reduce emissions. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, for example, has emphasised the ability to embed environmental principles in trade negotiations. One need only look to America’s trade deals which (though ignored by the Trump administration) penalise countries that fail to adhere to the Paris Climate Accord. As Glen Peters of the Centre for International Climate Research in Norway suggests, including data on cross-border emissions into negotiations could help “facilitate a more robust agreement.” 

Trade deals, as part of greater cooperation between countries on climate issues, should also facilitate the exchange of cleaner production practices and resources, be it carbon-capture or renewable energy technology. One area which could greatly benefit from such collaboration is freight transport. Transferring goods via aviation (when comparing similar weights and distances) releases far more emissions in comparison to shipping and has few affordable low-carbon alternatives.

Lastly, it is necessary to discern where the imported goods come from. The same products, depending on how energy-efficient production is, can release different levels of emissions. Data from the Global Trade Analysis Project highlights how cars and car parts imported from China release far more carbon dioxide than those exported by Germany. Sweden releases about 50% fewer emissions than coal-reliant Poland in the production of car batteries. It is pivotal that Britain is aware of such discrepancies, and takes proactive steps to correct them, perhaps through the rearrangement of supply chains and trade partners. 

Looking at how swiftly trade routes have been realigned in response to the trade war between the USA and China, this along with the use of trade deals to encourage a global shift towards cleaner production should render the task entirely feasible. In the short term, given the large amount of emissions imported from China (as mentioned above), especially with regards to car parts and electronics, it would be wise for the UK to look towards more environmentally-friendly countries such as Sweden. The goal in the long term should be to catalyse the international shift towards environmentally-friendly sources of energy such that the provenance of the good is no longer an issue.

Britain deserves credit for her initiative in tackling climate change. Yet outsourcing emissions only serves to further compound the problem, shifting most of the blame onto developing countries that rely heavily on exports. In attempting to measure and negate emissions, Britain’s net-zero law, however admirable, looks destined to fall short.

Johnny Tan is undertaking work experience with Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue.