UK claims greenhouse gas reduction, while outsourcing carbon emissions to China

By Fiona Harvey / The Guardian

Britons’ consumption of goods such as TVs and mobile phones made in China has “outsourced” the UK’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and is leading to a net increase in global emissions, according to a report from an influential committee of MPs.

While the UK’s own greenhouse-gas emissions have been tumbling, people and businesses have been buying an increasing proportion of manufactured products from overseas, where regulations on carbon emissions are often much weaker than within the EU. As a result, the increase in carbon emissions from goods produced overseas that are then used in Britain are now outstripping the gains made in cutting emissions here.

Tim Yeo, chairman of the energy and climate change committee, said: “Successive governments have claimed to be cutting climate-changing emissions, but in fact a lot of pollution has simply been outsourced overseas. We get through more consumer goods than ever before in the UK, and this is pushing up emissions in manufacturing countries like China.”

However, while China has become the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse-gas emissions, it has also become the world’s second biggest economy on the back of the enormous exports from its vast manufacturing sector. This means that, in effect, consumers from developed countries have paid China to take on responsibility for more greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Chinese government is reluctant to deal with the problem, insisting that China is taking on voluntary emissions-reduction targets, but is resistant to moves that would force Chinese manufacturers to obey stricter emissions limits.

This can put developed-world manufacturers at a disadvantage, which encourages the production of goods in areas with lax carbon controls, and thus pushes up emissions globally. Simon Harrison, chair of energy policy at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, said: “It’s about how you price imported goods – do you take account of the emissions involved in their production?”

When goods are manufactured in the UK and other European countries, the companies that make them are subject to strict emissions controls. For instance, they have to pay for the carbon they produce, and pay a surcharge on energy to subsidise renewable forms of generation. But overseas exporters in countries such as China and India are not subject to such stringent regulation, and often their manufacturing processes and energy generation are more carbon-intensive than the same processes here.

The government is in a quandary over what to do about the situation. Though importing carbon-intensive goods from overseas helps the UK to cut its overall emissions, it does not help to cut emissions globally, but just shifts the problem elsewhere. However, to slap import tariffs on goods from overseas that are produced in a carbon-intensive manner – which some UK manufacturers have said they would welcome – would be difficult under the World Trade Organisation’s rules.

Some green campaigners are urging the government to take responsibility for the emissions produced in the manufacture of imported goods. Andrew Pendleton, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth, said: “One of the main reasons why nations such as China have soaring carbon emissions is because they are making goods to sell to rich western countries. This report highlights the UK’s role in creating this pollution. The government can’t continue to turn a blind eye to the damaging impact that our hunger for overseas products has on our climate. We need to tackle the problem, not shift it abroad.”

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