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If we want to see climate change progress, carbon colonialism must be challenged
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If we want to see climate change progress, carbon colonialism must be challenged

A mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo


Assessments of UN climate conference COP26’s success have been mixed, but none have been entirely positive. Attaining the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels is a goal described by UN secretary general António Guterres as “on life support”, whilst reports in the wake of the conference suggested that the world is on track for “disastrous levels” of global warming.

Some quarters responded with to For tougher targets, call for it, yet as the chief executive of the UK’s Climate Change Committee Not noted, this is likely to simply “widen the gap between ambition and delivery”.

This problem cuts to the core of rich nations’ efforts to tackle climate change. The announcement of its sixth carbon budgetFor example, the UK committed to reducing carbon emissions by 78% in 2021, compared to 1990 levels. As the government Claim, this “sets in law the world’s most ambitious climate change target”.

But these targets will never be able to properly challenge the climate crisis without first tackling the implicit “Carbon colonialism” that underpins the UK’s approach to climate change. Here, carbon is measured in two ways: within the UK borders, and outside.

This approach to the country’s carbon footprint makes little sense in the face of the worldwide problem of climate change. Around 22%Global carbon emissions are caused when goods like electronics and clothes are produced in countries other than their intended consumption. The UK is a notable consumer – in fact, the third highest globally – of “Imported emissions” like these. However, the UK government sets climate targets that are focused on reducing emissions within the country.

Currently, UK laws that regulate emissions only apply to domestically manufactured products. Imported products are not. Voluntary standards – meaning the companies that make them don’t have to accurately report their emissions. This encourages “Outsourcing” of emissions overseas. The most carbon-intensive and dirtiest industries are Fashion for the fast paced worldAnd Construction, are transplanted into developing countries such as India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

A mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been investigated for exploiting workers as well as causing environmental damage.
Fairphone/Flickr, CC BY ND

UK companies that wish to appear green can then more easily make claims of “zero deforestation” or “zero waste to landfill” in their supply chains – even if they’re Untrue – since lack of enforcement in these countries means many claims go Unchecked. The human and environmental exploitation that goes along with cobalt miningThis chilling example shows how phones parts are being sold in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

From the perspective of national targets, these industries’ emissions have disappeared, contributing to the Success is a so-called word. of the UK’s decarbonisation strategy. But from the perspective of the planet, they haven’t gone anywhere.

Supply chains

There’s another complication. It’s hard to assess the true extent of international Supply chains because they’re inherently murky. They can cross borders, often involve multiple companies, and are measured differently across countries. This makes it politically and technically difficult to calculate the emissions in these chains.

A boat carrying containers on the sea
Shipping is often a part of complex supply chains.
Marco Verch/Flickr, CC BY – SA

However, UK laws don’t offer any incentives for those involved in supply chains to detail the complex processes, and people, involved. This means that supply chains are often reported to government and consumers in a highly simplified format, which allows companies appear to be more compliant with emission targets than they really are.

This practice hides the true distances travelled by raw materials in the chains, as well as the real environmental impact of what they’re used to make. The clothing industry offers an example of this problem – even industry leaders such as Stella McCartney admit that tracing the provenance of material used to make their clothes is “Extremely difficult”.

This system needs a serious overhaul, particularly in light of the government’s announcement that emissions from Shipping will form part of the UK’s net zero commitments. In the case of the clothing industry, current assessments of the length of shipping supply chains – and therefore the emissions they produce – are enormous underestimates.

If the UK is to achieve its carbon commitments, there needs to be better regulation of its supply chains – and less reliance on voluntary reporting of what goes on within them. To truly address the climate crisis, we must address the Carbon colonialismThat continues to influence environmental policies. Our environmental footprint doesn’t start or end at our borders. Nor should it be measured.


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