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Greens: Abandon economic growth to beat CO2 offshoring

How very opportune

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Environmental campaigners, citing government-commissioned research, have said that the UK's claimed carbon emissions figures are "a big lie". The analysis adds carbon burdens associated with offshore manufactures, shipping and aviation to the UK total, and - according to the activists - shows that economic growth and carbon emissions are inextricably linked, and that the UK is actually responsible for much more greenhouse gas than it admits.

John Barrett, one of the authors of the reports by the Stockholm Environment Institute at York (SEI-Y) for the government and campaign group WWF*, was quoted by the BBC today:

"We are constantly battling against increases of wealth... There's a very fundamental problem here that no one really wants to talk about."

Stuart Bond of WWF told the Beeb: "Our claims on emissions are simply a big lie.

"There is no way the government can hope to achieve any of its emissions targets without cheating unless it changes its policies on encouraging flying and hoping to satisfy people's insatiable demands for buying more and more stuff."

The Beeb's mildly famous environment analyst Roger Harrabin adds:

The government sat on the Defra SEI report since February, tested its calculations, then published it in an obscure press release on 2 July.

This confirms, as BBC News pointed out last year, that the UK's apparently virtuous carbon cuts have only been achieved because we are getting countries like China to do our dirty work.

Naughty old government, suppressing the "news" that manufacturing is moving from Europe to China, where they tend to make their energy in particularly dirty ways. The gov may have used a special secret press release, but SEI-Y issued a normal one, and the gov did publish the report (pdf). It could be, in fact, that the releases weren't picked up because people were generally saying "well, duh".

So it's now well established that people getting richer means they consume more energy, which given current power and transport technology normally means more greenhouse gas emissions. Often these gases are actually emitted in some other country, but they still happen.

So what should the government be doing?

We gave Bond of the WWF a call. He said that first and foremost, the government and Britain in general needs to measure its emissions under the new SEI all-inclusive rules as well as the conventional Kyoto ones, and act to reduce both figures rather than just the emissions which occur on UK territory.

As to how that should be done, Bond was reluctant to give specifics. But he said there was a need for a "strategic plan to set out very clearly how the UK will become a low carbon economy by 2050... at the moment there is no central priority for environmental issues. Consumers' consumption of goods is the driver of emissions. The continued pursuit of GDP, of economic growth - that is a mantra that we must question."

"We need to live within 450ppm CO2," he went on. "That's going to mean a very large cut - 80, 90 per cent - in emissions, within 40 years. We need to increase energy efficiency, sure, but it won't do to just put in a few energy-saving light bulbs. We need to think bigger."

Bond also considered it essential that limited wealth and resources be distributed more equitably around the world.

"We need to make this work for all," he said, "not just the privileged in developed countries."

Asked if this wasn't, in the end, going to mean a fairly hair-shirt lifestyle for us Brits - no cars, no tumble dryers, fewer showers and iPods and so on - Bond said that "economic wealth isn't the same as happiness or directly linked to quality of life ... It's about a quantity lifestyle - more and more stuff - versus quality".

Bond was also sceptical about the chances of a technological solution appearing - for instance nuclear-fusion power, so far harnessed only in the form of H-Bombs. Working fusion reactors, if they could be built, might offer abundant and effectively inexhaustible energy without carbon emissions.

"The idea of a technological fix is one we should be cautious about," he said. "So often there are unintended consequences or trade-offs. Look at the 'paperless office' - there's now more paper, not less. Look at biofuels. I'd be wary of believing that a technology solution will arrive in time.

"We need to find ways of living that address the problem."

Looking at the business and financial news, we may soon get a chance to do just that. ®

*The one-time World Wildlife Fund, set up in the Sixties to protect endangered species. Nowadays it has widened its remit considerably, and like the multinational arms goliath BAE says that its title letters no longer refer to specific words.

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