There is nothing wrong with the general direction of policy contained within the government’s ten point plan to cut carbon emissions, announced today. Who doesn’t want clean energy and more energy-efficient homes and vehicles?
The problem is the perverse target which lies at its heart: the legally-binding demand, laid down in the Climate Change Act, to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. This is so badly defined that the government’s ten point plan becomes really little more than a manifesto to export much of British industry, food production and power generation.
The UK's definition of carbon emissions, as used in the Climate Change Act, covers only ‘territorial’ emissions – i.e. those spewed out physically within the confines of Britain. It excludes carbon emissions from factories in South East Asia which are making products for UK consumers. It excludes the emissions from container ships bringing those goods to Britain – at least until they reach the last few miles before docking at Felixstowe. It also excludes international aviation, emissions caused in producing and transporting imported food, and imported electricity.
To underline the importance this makes: UK carbon emissions in 2017 stood at 460 million tonnes. That was down 42 per cent from the 794 million tonnes emitted in 1990 – which makes the UK appear incredibly successful at cutting emissions. Indeed, in some ways, we have been successful: coal, once the beating heart of our electricity industry, has all but disappeared as a source of power. But once you add the carbon emissions embedded in food and goods imports, as well as those from shipping and aviation, UK emissions in 2017 were a whacking 784 million tonnes.
What we have really done is offshore our emissions. Huge swathes of the UK’s manufacturing industry have drained away to South East Asia, taking their territorial emissions with them.
Meanwhile, we are importing more food – our self-sufficiency in food has fallen from 74 per cent in 1990 to 60 per cent in 2019. We are also importing more electricity – last year 3 per cent of our electricity was generated on the near-Continent, and this figure is inevitably going to grow sharply as we build more and more solar and wind capacity without the necessary storage capacity. Last week, when wind speeds were low in Britain and solar farms were producing little power, over 10 per cent of our electricity came from abroad.
It is all too easy to foresee the day when a UK government announces the net zero target has been reached. But it will have been achieved by offshoring the remains of UK manufacturing, by ending steel and cement-making in Britain (two industries which are going to prove very hard to decarbonise), by importing far more of our food, and by making up the shortfall in electricity-generation with imports via subsea cables from Europe. And it won't matter if our imported goods and electricity are carbon-intensive – all that counts for the government’s target will be that emissions don’t physically occur in Britain.
As long as the government proceeds with the net zero target we are doomed to follow perverse policies which make the country poorer while doing little or nothing to reduce global net carbon emissions.