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Embedded emissions and the secret life of consumer values

If our carbon emissions are falling, it means we’re on the right track, right? And we’ve done it without needing to drastically change our economics (or even our lifestyles). But what if our accounting systems are wrong?

A new animation exposes three lies we are told consistently by our government about our emissions, launched just before the UK’s Climate Change Committee released a long-awaited report in April.

We currently account only for territorial emissions – those created within our own borders. This conveniently allows us to ignore the emissions associated with everything we consume that we import from elsewhere in the world. Is this such a big deal? Well, yes. It means that, whilst on paper, the UK’s carbon emissions have fallen by 20% since 1990, when measured on a consumption basis they have risen by 10%. As shown through Freedom of Information requests two years ago, ministers and civil servants have known about this for many years but have chosen to simply ignore it.

But consumption drives growth, and growth keeps us afloat, and that’s the only way we can be happy, right? Well, no. Welcome to another lie. After a certain level, increases in income have no bearing on how happy we are. Focusing on consumption and growth is not only misleading, it’s actually damaging to us and the planet. Misleading because the error margins are often bigger than the miniscule increases or decreases fixated upon by rolling news; before even getting to the fact that GDP excludes most of what we hold dear: how happy we are, how much time we have to spend with our friends, how we treat one another. As Robert F. Kennedy once said, such reductionisms “measure neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country.”

Damaging, perhaps more worryingly, because a focus on money and consumerism can actually make us less happy, less concerned about the environment, and less compassionate, because of the encouragement of materialistic and self-interested values. Research shows that these values are in direct, psychological opposition to values centred on concern for community, other people and the environment. Encouraging consumerism – such as through commercial advertising – is not only harming the planet through its directly destructive use of resources, it is undermining society’s concern about this damage and ability to act collectively to work against such damage.

So what can we do about it? First, maintain the pressure on our government to take our outsourced emissions into account. And, second: start tackling consumption. We should think about redefining our relationship with material goods, and encouraging collaborative production as well as consumption. We should stop talking about GDP as if it matters more than how well we’re doing socially and environmentally. And we could think about addressing advertising – a key component of consumer culture –to allow our minds to be freer of clutter and anti-social values.

The animation was launched on April 16th at Friends House, Euston. The speakers were Guy Shrubsole (Friends of the Earth), Kate Soper (London Met Uni), John Barrett (Leeds Uni), Alice Bows (Tyndall Centre, Sustainable Consumption Institute), Tom Crompton (WWF-UK), Ruth Potts (New Materialism), Caroline Lucas (MP, Green Party).

Audio from the event, held at Friends House Euston, is available here.

Elena BlackmoreEmbedded emissions and the secret life of consumer values