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Why taking responsibility for our carbon emissions means promoting the Right to Repair

Using products for longer is one of the simplest actions we can take towards climate justice.

Janet Gunter
18 October 2019
Image: George Panagakis/Zuma Press/PA Images

In our global system of production, consumption and premature disposal, using products for longer should be considered a pillar of global climate justice, and in an even broader sense, environmental justice.

Saturday 19 October marks the third International Repair Day, and the theme this year is 'Repair for Future'.

As we chanted for climate justice last month in Berlin together with youth strikers and other Right to Repair campaigners, I finally started to perceive our repair activism for what it was: promoting one of the simplest actions we can take towards climate justice.

Subsequently, we learned in Sweden there is a movement called Köpskam, or 'shame of buying new'. We learned about this movement via a famous Swedish 16-year-old climate crisis revolutionary, who gets endlessly trolled by sad people telling her to go to China.

Whose emissions?

We find rich irony in this, because Greta Thunberg has done more than anybody to draw attention to a very important and often-ignored dimension of the climate crisis: how much of China's carbon footprint is indeed ours.

It turns out the way we count carbon has everything to do with climate justice.

When Thunberg came to the UK parliament earlier this year, she talked about carbon accounting. She said: “The UK is, however, very special. Not only for its mind-blowing historical carbon debt, but also for its current, very creative, carbon accounting.” She is referring in part to the emissions made to produce the stuff we import.

The Net Zero target adopted by the last UK government focuses on territorial emissions, that is, the emissions produced in the UK.

But what about consumption emissions? The UK imports considerable greenhouse gases emissions through the consumption of goods and services, however there are no legislated targets to limit these.

Many of these imported goods have really short lifespans, and some end up at our community repair events where we try to extend their lives. And around 80% of a small electronic device’s carbon footprint – over the whole of its lifecycle – is emitted before it even reaches UK shores.

While the high consumption-based emissions of the UK are highlighted in the latest Committee on Climate Change (CCC) report, there is no clear strategy for how – and by how much – the UK should reduce them. (It’s worth mentioning here that China is taking decarbonisation in its industrial sector really seriously.)

Here in the UK, the CCC hints that people in households can use products for longer, and fix them.

But what if, even with the best intentions in the world, we can’t use stuff for longer by fixing it? What if we don’t have access to spare parts, repair documentation, and what if these products are impossible to repair — by design?

Limiting our right to repair limits our ability to act for climate justice, to reduce our emissions that will hurt people elsewhere who never consumed or emitted like we did.

The true cost of materials

We must take responsibility for our emissions, wherever they occur. Likewise, we must take responsibility for the raw materials that are extracted for the stuff we buy.

We started The Restart Project after years working with communities on the sharp edge of our voracious appetite for resources: farmers having their fields seized for pine plantations used for paper production; communities whose common land is taken from them for mining.

The impacts of this mining are often invisible to us. Mining processes require a lot of environmental management and there is a high cost associated with this. If mining occurs in countries without rule of law, sound regulation and enforcement, risks arise. Use of acid and chemicals in mining processes can threaten the health of nearby communities.

A handful of valuable metals get recycled from our electronics, such as copper and gold. But the vast majority of what are deemed “critical” raw materials, those with a supply risk and those that are difficult to substitute, cannot be recycled effectively. Many have nearly insignificant rates of recycling. Recyclers are constantly playing catch-up to an ever-faster cycle of new products, new materials and new technologies –– having to invent new techniques and business models for processing dead devices.

What this means in practice is that demand for virgin critical raw materials continues to increase with every new product we buy.

Better economies

As an organisation promoting longer-lasting products and repair, we constantly get asked in the media: “Are you against growth?” and “Are you trying to abolish capitalism?” – our answer is clear. The global system of production, consumption and disposal will radically change. Because it must.

As economist Thomas Piketty wrote just this week: "We will have to construct new social, educational, fiscal and climate norms through democratic discussion".

Slowing production and disposal of products will be a major shift, opening up new jobs for reuse, remanufacture and repair in economies that long stopped producing.

Some of us in these economies might need to get used to the idea of buying secondhand products. Instead of a £20 disposable toaster, what is wrong with a quality, repairable second-hand toaster of the same price, as long as we know it will carry on working for many years?

And yes, there is a question about what happens to manufacturing jobs elsewhere, if we are talking of global justice. But the hype cycle and obsessive model of consumption has severe and drastic consequences for workers, who can’t afford to buy most of the products they produce. Manufacturers in China have been exposed for relying on coerced, disposable student 'interns' for labour during peak seasons. Slowing and smoothing consumption, and focusing on improving production, will have long-term benefits for workers. This requires concerted action across the world.

The “Repair for Future” theme for International Repair Day reminds us that we have to act now in a way that will ensure the survival of today’s young people and future generations, not just here in prosperous, high-consuming countries but everywhere.

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