Carbon Omissions: why we need to start talking about consumption

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Elena Blackmore, a Project Officer at the Public Interest Research Centre, writes about the Carbon Omissions event in London two weeks ago.

If our carbon emissions are falling, it means we’re on the right track, right? And we’ve done it without needing to drastically change our economics (or even our lifestyles). But what if our accounting systems are wrong?

On Tuesday of last week, the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) launched a brand new animation exposing three lies we are told consistently by our government about our emissions. The animation, produced in collaboration with leading animator Leo Murray and acclaimed journalist George Monbiot, is the culmination of a lengthy project by PIRC to ensure the UK’s emissions are properly tackled by the Government.

We currently account only for territorial emissions: those created within our own borders. This conveniently allows us to ignore the emissions associated with everything we consume that we import from elsewhere in the world. Is this such a big deal? Well, yes. It means that, whilst on paper, the UK’s carbon emissions have fallen by 19% since 1990, when measured on a consumption basis they have risen by 20%. As ex-PIRC Director Guy Shrubsole showed through Freedom of Information requests two years ago, ministers and civil servants have known about this for many years but (in a shocking show of irresponsibility) have chosen to simply ignore it.

On the panel, John Barrett of Leeds University had also crunched the numbers on whether our emissions were going up because of a burgeoning population – a favoured smoke-screen by many who don’t like to address their own consumption patterns. The Optimum Population Trust (now Population Matters) used to have a scheme whereby you could offset the emissions of your flight by paying £5 that would go towards family planning in sub-Saharan Africa. John’s conclusion? Yes, of course the number of people has an impact, but nowhere near the size of the impact of our increased consumption.

But consumption drives growth, and growth keeps us afloat, and that’s the only way we can be happy, right? Well, no. Welcome to another lie. After a certain level, increases in income have no bearing on how happy we are, as Kate Soper of London Metropolitan University discussed. Focusing on consumption and growth is not only misleading, it’s actually damaging to us and the planet. Misleading because the error margins are often bigger than the miniscule increases or decreases fixated upon by rolling news; before even getting to the fact that GDP excludes most of what we hold dear: how happy we are, how much time we have to spend with our friends, how we treat one another. As Robert F. Kennedy once said, such reductionisms “measure neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country.”

Damaging, perhaps more worryingly, because a focus on money and consumerism can actually make us less happy, less concerned about the environment, and less compassionate, because of the encouragement of materialistic and self-interested values. Research shows that these values are in direct, psychological opposition to values centred on concern for community, other people and the environment, as Tom Crompton of WWF told us on Tuesday. Encouraging consumerism is not only harming the planet through its directly destructive use of resources, it is undermining society’s concern about this damage and ability to act collectively to work against such damage.

So what can we do about it? First, maintain the pressure on our government to take our outsourced emissions into account – and start tackling consumption. Alice Bows outlined the need to not get locked into more carbon intensive energy systems such as investing in fracking. Ruth Potts and Kate Soper argued for our need to redefine our relationship with material goods: encouraging collaborative production as well as consumption. John Barrett said we should at least stop talking about GDP before finding an alternative (of which there are many existing suggestions). Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavillion, said we must bring the issues of climate and consumption back onto the political agenda. A recently launched campaign, Leave Our Kids Alone, was mentioned, and the panel were in agreement that advertising – a key component of consumer culture – must be curbed to allow our minds to be freer of clutter and anti-social values.

Audio from the event, held at Friends House Euston, will be available online from later this week. The speakers were Guy Shrubsole (Friends of the Earth), Kate Soper (London Met Uni), John Barrett (Leeds Uni), Alice Bows (Tyndall Centre, Sustainable Consumption Institute), Tom Crompton (WWF-UK), Ruth Potts (New Materialism), Caroline Lucas (MP, Green Party).