In full: the inaugural address of President Michael D Higgins
However, in more recent years, we saw the rise of a different kind of individualism – closer to an egotism based on purely material considerations – that tended to value the worth of a person in terms of the accumulation of wealth rather then their fundamental dignity. That was our loss, the source in part, of our present difficulties. Now it is time to turn to an older wisdom that, while respecting material comfort and security as a basic right of all, also recognises that many of the most valuable things in life cannot be measured.
I’ve copied a few paras below, but you really should go to the Guardian website and read the whole article.
This is important because it allows us – very briefly, and possibly illusory – a glimpse of decoupling. Could it be that it is possible after all to reduce material throughput while economic activity increases?
Like I say, it’s just a glimpse. Even if Goodall’s tentative conclusions turn out to be true (and there are important caveats), the degree of decoupling would be nowhere near that required to reduce our resource use enough to sustain our civilisation in the long-term. But – hey – when you thought you’d never see even a glimpse, be pleased.
Two quick points:
One of several important caveats about the metrics is that the story on carbon looks different. ‘Offshoring’ our emissions to China not only gets them off our books; it also multiplies them massively, according to recent (not yet peer reviewed) data I’ve seen.
My main reflection on this article is that this is exactly the sort of discussion that needs to be at the heart of our political and policy debate. This is just the sort of finding that we look at the implications of if we are trying, as Tim Jackson has challenged us, to create the new macro-economics.
We can’t pretend that it is in the mainstream. Yet. But we need to use the influence we have to make it so.
With so many significant events to look back on, one thing that few people will remember 2001 for is its entry in the UK’s Material Flow Accounts, a set of dry and largely ignored data published annually by the Office for National Statistics.
But, according to environment writer Chris Goodall, those stats tell an important story. “What the figures suggest,” Goodall says enthusiastically, “is that 2001 may turn out to be the year that the UK’s consumption of ‘stuff’ – the total weight of everything we use, from food and fuel to flat-pack furniture – reached its peak and began to decline.”
Goodall discovered the Material Flow Accounts while writing a research paper examining the UK’s consumption of resources. The pattern he stumbled upon caught him by surprise: time and time again, Brits seemed to be consuming fewer resources and producing less waste. What really surprised him was that consumption appears to have started dropping in the first years of the new millennium, when the economy was still rapidly growing.
In 2001, Goodall says, the UK’s consumption of paper and cardboard finally started to decline. This was followed, in 2002, by a fall in our use of primary energy: the raw heat and power generated by all fossil fuels and other energy sources. The following year, 2003, saw the start of a decline in the amount of household waste (including recycling) generated by each person in the country – a downward trend that before long could also be observed in the commercial and construction waste sectors.
It’s good that LGC has used this story to highlight some of the real progress made by local authorities in reducing carbon. But I’m afraid that the stats showing falling emissions in every authority only tell part of the story: the territorial part.
Once we take into account the emissions we are all responsible for, the emissions needed to create the goods and services we use and buy, the story is very different. These embedded emissions have been increasing, but central and local government don’t report them. So the real story is that every area is responsible for way more carbon that we admit, and most of it is outsourced.
Some authorities, such as West Sussex County Council and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, are starting to understand the consumption footprint of their area, and explore how it can influence policy. And they are part of a growing trend: only this week, an Inquiry was launched by the parliamentary Energy & Climate Change Committee to investigate the case for consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions reporting in the UK.
I just want to celebrate that this is happening. If you’ve been here before, you’ll know that I bang on about consumption-based emissions a lot. Because it’s vital, and because so few other people do. But most of all because naive me still cannot believe how blinkered policy-makers at all tiers are in ignoring this perspective. Rant over. Thanks to Tim Yeo. Let’s hope it’s an important step on the road to having governance arrangements and policy-making that takes account of the carbon in supply chains.
The Energy and Climate Change Committee, chaired by Tim Yeo MP, is today launching an inquiry to investigate the case for consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions reporting in the UK.
The UK’s reported greenhouse gas emissions have decreased since 1990, in line with our commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. However, it has been suggested that this is a result of the way that emissions are currently accounted for, which is on a production basis. Production-based emissions reporting only takes account of emissions produced physically within a particular territory. If a consumption-based accounting approach was to be used—that is, reporting the carbon embedded in all of the goods and services consumed within the UK—it is very likely that the emissions attributable to the UK would be shown to have been increasing.
The Committee will examine the case for consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions reporting in the UK. The Committee invites responses addressing some or all of the following questions:
How do assessments of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions differ when measured on a consumption rather than a production basis?
Is it possible to develop a robust methodology for measuring emissions on a consumption rather than production basis and what are the challenges that need to be overcome to deliver this?
What are the benefits and disadvantages associated with taking a consumption-based rather than production-based approach to greenhouse gas emissions accounting?
Is there any evidence of industry relocating from the UK to other countries as a result of UK climate change policy?
Would it be (a) desirable and (b) practicable for the UK to adopt emissions reduction targets on a consumption rather than production basis?
What are the potential implications at the international level of the UK adopting a consumption- rather than production-based approach to greenhouse gas emissions accounting?
Are there any other issues relating to consumption-based emissions reporting that you think the Committee should be aware of?
Here’s the full version of an article I wrote for the recent SOLACE Foundation Imprint on Local Government and Climate Change. My chapter (theme: new metrics, new thinking) had to be edited at the last minute, so a useful graphic, and the summary, were missing from the published version. This version, I think, tells the story a bit better.I’ve embedded the full article below. Have a look, and let me know what you think.
One of the things that has surprised me about advocates of ecological footprinting (on which basis we have been ‘eating into capital rather than living off the interest’ of the biosphere since the 1980s) and of capitals metrics (where we measure wealth by adding up social, environmental, human, physical and financial capital, and then watch the trends) is that they have not in the past used the narrative that we have been in recession for a long time.
The evidence has been there to make the case for donkey’s years.
So, while I agree that there is an opportunity here, because the economic situation is so high profile and affecting most people personally, the big question is ‘where is the leadership going to come from to make these ideas mainstream?’. There’s even a populist case to be made that we’ve been tricked by always hearing about mean, rather than median, income: the top X% have been getting wealthier at the expense of the rest of us. You don’t even need to reference capitals models or wellbeing metrics to make this case. But even this sort of argument seems beyond those in the political mainstream.
Remember when you were given an injection at school? You were told to look away and then, before you had time to panic, the nurse was telling you it was all over. Maybe the best way to get people to accept something daunting is to tell them it’s happened already.
As our conversation ranged far and wide,we agreed that in these times of economic difficulty and public spending austerity, the suggestion we should question traditional ideas of economic growth seems to most people at best irrelevant and at worst barmy. We didn’t pursue the issue much further but the implication was that it is only when growth feels reasonably secure that we can begin again to ask ‘but what kind of growth?’
Then, this morning, I read a powerful article in the Financial Times headlined ‘spectre of stagnating incomes stalks globe’. Here is a quote from the piece:
‘Median male real US earnings have not risen since 1975. Average real Japanese household income after taxation fell in the decade to mid-2000. And those in German have been falling for 10 years’.
We know from research commissioned by the TUC and the excellent work of the Resolution Foundation that the same is broadly true for the UK. The future looks no better (indeed it looks much worse in the short term for many countries including the UK). The impact is not just on those in the ‘squeezed middle’ but, arguably, on the whole liberal market model.
A second FT article on the same topic concluded thus:
‘Dick Longworth of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is more categorical ‘this is a consumer society and they’re the consumers…if they don’t buy, we don’t survive’
It is important to understand that what we are seeing is not the result of a downward blip but the collapse of the device – excessive household and national borrowing – which disguised the reality for the decade up to 2007. This is a profound crisis of global capitalism in the developed world.
But if you put the FT piece together with the Porritt conversation a surprising possibility emerges. Instead of talking about abandoning traditional growth as some kind of outlandish and unrealistic green vision, how about recognising that for most earners in the West no growth (in their living standards) has been the reality for over a generation.
In other words, the question is not how do we create a different model of growth but how do we adapt to the long drawn out end of the traditional model of growth? Or, to put it another way, how can the quality of our lives and our society improve even if for the majority of citizens disposable incomes (including the social wage of public investment) are not?
Below, I’ve clipped the blog of Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, who took part in one of the events set up chiefly to consult on the content of the draft Greater Manchester Climate Change Strategy. At the event, I ran a session on carbon metrics, beginning with the Windfall Game Cllr Leese describes.
The solution to the Windfall Game doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the fact that everyone who has taken part so far has instinctively included all the CO2 in the supply of the product or service we asked them to consider the impact of. Which is the point of the whole exercise.
So, I now feel even more confident in asserting that the consumption-based perspective is the most appropriate way of understanding our carbon footprint. It’s the one we instinctively use. No-one, asked to estimate the footprint of their flying to Barcelona, only includes the emissions from vehicle fuel for that part of their drive to the airport that takes place in their own authority, offsets it against the CO2 from the energy they save by not being at home, then excludes the flight emissions as these aren’t included in NI186 or national accounts. Yet that is the logic of the machinery and metrics that government has built at local and national level since Kyoto.
Why have we so meekly accepted the use of this perspective in policy-making? And is there still time to take the much more easily-understood consumption-based approach?
Fascinating meeting of the Environmental Advisory Panel yesterday evening which included a few guests from elsewhere in Greater Manchester as we were discussing the city-region’s climate change action plan. There was a challenging section on metrics.
Pretty much every climate change action plan including Manchester’s is based on reducing our direct emissions, challenging enough in itself. However, if you look at indirect emissions as well, the total emissions based on our carbon footprint, then the task becomes even more daunting. But fact is for the last couple of decades our direct emissions have been coming down largely because we have been exporting them, principally to the developing world. Not the path to a sustainable future.
The session on metrics began with a game. You have had a lucky windfall – a £1,000 to spend , and a choice of nine things to spend the whole thousand pounds on. Which has the lowest emissions? Not surprisingly, spending it on home energy efficiency measures scored best, and a European city-break ( travelling by air ) scored worst. In between, champagne socialists will be delighted to know, spending a grand on a champagne party for your family had far less emissions than buying a thousand pound bike, lap-top, or blowing it all on low cost clothes for the family. On this basis the Conservative Party might also like to re-consider their ban on champagne when their conference comes back to Manchester in the autumn.