ourEconomy: Analysis

The UK claims to be a world leader in fighting climate change. It’s wrong

At home, the UK outsources its responsibility to decarbonise, and abroad it fails its historic responsibility to mitigate carbon emissions

Harpreet Kaur Paul
22 April 2021, 9.44am
People ride rickshaws through a flooded street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in April 2018
Rehman Asad/Alamy Stock Photo

British politicians have long touted the UK’s climate leadership on the world stage. The official story is certainly impressive: between 1990 and 2016 the UK cut greenhouse gas emissions by 41% – more than any other country in the G7. The UK was also the first country in the world to set statutory carbon emissions reduction targets in the Climate Change Act 2008, and the first major economy to pass net-zero emissions law in 2019.

Just this week the UK government adopted what it described as “the world’s most ambitious climate change target” when it passed its sixth Carbon Budget into law.

As the UK prepares to host COP26, the image of the UK as a climate leader will be projected around the world. But does the reality really live up to the hype?

Misleading figures

The first problem with the UK’s climate narrative is that it is based on misleading figures. The UK’s consumption-based emissions (or ‘carbon footprint’) declined by only 15% between 1990 and 2016 – much less than claimed by the government. This is because nearly half of the UK’s carbon footprint relates to goods and services imported from overseas but consumed in the UK – something which neither the official figures nor the UK’s net-zero target account for.

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This means that emissions relating to products including clothing, processed foods and electronics that are imported into the UK are allocated to the manufacturing country’s emissions, not the UK’s – even though they are produced to meet UK demand.

The rosy picture painted by the government therefore overlooks a stark reality: the UK is outsourcing a significant proportion of its emissions to other, often poorer countries.

This isn’t the only area where the reality falls short of the rhetoric. The UK gives more subsidies to fossil fuel companies than any other country in Europe; recently granted new oil and gas exploration licenses and permits for the North Sea; and is attempting to open a new coal mine in Cumbria. Is this really what ‘world-leading’ action looks like?

‘False solutions’

While to its credit the UK has set legally binding emissions targets, the problems lie with its plan for achieving them. Rather than investing in immediately available solutions to create green jobs, the UK is relying heavily on so-called “false solutions”, which are commercially unviable, hinder meaningful decarbonisation efforts, and negatively impact biodiversity protection and human rights abroad.

The UK’s pledges are heavily reliant on unproven ‘offsetting schemes’ that will supposedly reduce carbon emissions sometime in the future. However, the promise of these schemes deters and delays action we could take now to reduce our emissions. Research shows that these delays could lead to a catastrophic additional 1.4°C of warming. So while the UK professes to show ‘leadership’, it is doing so on the basis of socially problematic and technologically unsound pretences that fall significantly far from its fair share of action.

Climate change will exacerbate the inequities and injustices experienced by already-marginalised communities and regions

In reality there is no excuse for delaying action: we have the technology, means and solutions to reduce emissions now. Within the UK, thousands of new good green jobs could promote democratic and decentralised climate action today – action that would go some way to repairing persistent class, race and other social and economic inequities.

This means harnessing energy from the sun, sea and wind through community wealth-building schemes that help to undo years of harmful austerity measures. It means regulating construction so that all new buildings meet ambitious energy efficiency standards that improve health, reduce energy poverty or insecurity, and reduce emissions, while providing financial support for retrofitting existing sites. It means supporting public electric transport and investing in already low-carbon industries, especially supporting COVID-19-hit jobs. And it means protecting our remaining oceans, forests, and biodiversity while reforesting and transitioning to agroecological farming. As things stand, the UK’s plan falls far short.

Climate change is a class issue

A credible plan for tackling climate change must start by recognising that its impact is not felt equally. Coastal flood risks are highest among ex-industrial ports and declining resort towns, with disproportionately large numbers of communities struggling with poverty wages, underemployment or unemployment. If you live in the most deprived areas of England, you are five times more likely to be exposed to greater emissions, hazards and offensive pollution. If you live within 600 metres of a river (particularly in the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside and London), and you are in a deprived area, it is much more likely that the river will have poor chemical or biological qualities. Waste recycling and transfer sites, and particularly incinerators, are more likely to be in areas of higher social deprivation. Research shows that particulate air pollution in the UK is concentrated in the 20% of poorest neighbourhoods in England, often in urban areas with a greater proportion of people racialised as Black. Individuals living in high-rise residences will experience heat stress more severely in contrast to those with green spaces. People racialised as Black are four times more likely than white people to have no access to outdoor space at home (e.g. a balcony or a garden). In other words: climate change is a class issue.

Without bold action, climate change will exacerbate the inequities and injustices experienced by communities and regions that are already marginalised. A reparative approach to climate action would see this addressed within the UK – but again the UK’s current plan falls short.

Global reparations

Climate change is a global problem, and climate leadership means delivering justice at home and abroad. For the UK, this means taking responsibility for its historic emissions, stopping extracting labour and space in the Global South, and reconciling its historic role in slavery and colonialism. While Britain extracted trillions from its colonies in the past, exposure to colonial practices continue to act as indicators of poverty today.

In 1825 Britain accounted for 80% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Between 1850 and 2002, countries in the Global North emitted at least three times as many greenhouse gas emissions as countries in the Global South, where approximately 85% of the global population resides. Every year, the average person in the US, Canada, and Australia emits roughly 50 times more CO2 than someone in Mozambique. The average person in Britain emits more carbon in the first two weeks of a year than the average per capita annual emissions of Rwanda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Madagascar, Guinea and Burkina Faso combined.

Annual temperatures are increasingly reaching uninhabitable levels, particularly in South Asia.

Today, the countries that are least responsible for climate change are most impacted by it. They also have fewer resources to decarbonise their footprint, adapt to inevitable climate change impacts and repair unmanageable ones. Every day, sea levels are rising and salty water is flowing onto land, making it increasingly untenable for communities to harvest crops and drink water safely. Villages are falling into rivers. Record-breaking annual temperatures are increasingly reaching uninhabitable levels, particularly in South Asia. Storms, wildfires, droughts and floods are becoming increasingly regular.

With the UN’s climate change conference, COP26, fast approaching, global justice needs to be at the core of climate policy. A fair approach to climate action that is consistent with Paris Agreement goals would see the UK engaging in fast, fair meaningful decarbonisation at home while also committing to £1trn of climate financing abroad and making additional payments for colonisation and slavery. It would also see the UK ending financing for fossil fuel projects abroad with immediate effect, exploring new and innovative ways of raising public climate finance and allocating it to communities on the frontline of climate change impacts, and introducing financial transaction taxes and a climate damages tax.

The root drivers of inequity between North and South, such as unfair loan conditions and trade and investment treaties, must also be undone. A movement to cancel debt in the Global South would be a first step, but we must recognise that debt is owed in the opposite direction. Countries in the Global North have continued to engage in economic, political, and military interventions – interventions that, as Carmen G. Gonzalez notes, wreak havoc on wages, price, employment, social services, human health, and access to environmental necessities such as food and water.  

In 2019 Greta Thunberg called on people to “act as if our house is on fire”. The grassroots climate justice collective ‘Wretched of the Earth’ responded with the reminder that “for many of us, our house has been on fire for over 500 years.”

Unless and until the UK embraces climate reparations to address this long history and repair the roots of our multiple crises, its claim to be a ‘climate leader’ will be little more than empty rhetoric.

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