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Clean Energy & Renewables
Energy Transition

Net-zero targets are meaningless without accounting for carbon consumption

Posted by on 15 May 2019
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The UK’s Committee on Climate Change released its "Net Zero" report earlier this month to considerable fanfare from environmental groups and renewable energy advocates.

Commissioned by the UK government, the report recommends that the UK steps-up its GHG reduction targets to achieve net-zero emissions by the year 2050.

This would represent a significant increase in ambition on the existing targets, which call for an 80% reduction in emissions by mid-century.

But according to the author of the UK’s Cost of Energy Review, Professor Dieter Helm, proposals that aim for net-zero emissions within the borders of European countries are not a sufficient response to dealing with the causes of climate change.

Targets need to take full account of the contribution of European consumption patterns to GHG emissions globally, he told the Flame conference in Amsterdam on May 15th.

“Our carbon consumption [in the UK] is 70% higher than our carbon production,” he said. “What net zero really means is that you need to do this in consumption terms.”

Helm’s argument is that policies focusing exclusively on energy use within national borders will continue to drive the deindustrialisation of European economies. This trend is already pronounced in the UK, and is partly to account for the country’s success with reducing the carbon intensity of its power sector.

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“If you’re interested in climate change, the question is what can Europe do to reduce global emissions, not what can Europe do to reduce European emissions - unless it’s also true that reducing European emissions reduces global emissions,” he said.

By shifting manufacturing and industry overseas – often to countries with dirty, coal driven industrial sectors – European countries are externalising emissions from their consumption patterns, instead of actively reducing them.

The focus on energy production comes because policy makers are unwilling to recognise or communicate the true costs of dealing with climate change, Helm said.

“Politicians will want us to focus on what can be done without impacting standards of living,” he told attendees. If we are to “unilaterally reduce carbon concentrations in the atmosphere,” he said, politicians will need to “tell people the truth, tell them that it’s expensive, and tell them why we have to do it.”

Tackling climate change will require new policy measures, he argued, including the imposition of border taxes that account for the true emissions cost of imported goods. “If imports are polluting, the import price should make us pay for the pollution in those imports,” he told the conference.

Efforts to introduce border tax adjustments have in the past met opposition on the grounds that they may be employed as a form of economic protectionism. Determining the appropriate amount of tax to apply to individual goods will also be a complicated process.

But a properly calibrated border tax policy would provide a level playing field to goods produced at home and abroad, instead of punishing industries subject to domestic carbon taxes.

A net-zero target introduced in this context would be more difficult to achieve - but also far more impactful in the global decarbonisation effort.

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