Carbon goes Global
If you wanted to make a phone, how would you produce it? A government bureaucrat might acquire the materials, design it, and assemble it all in the same place. Yet when Apple produces a phone, stages of production can occur in over 30 countries—the best designers are in California, the best assembly workers are in China. If we were to produce climate change policy, why should we assume the best methods exist in the UK?
In an effort to reduce greenhouse gasses that cause global warming, the UK plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, emitting as much as we take back from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the government is only considering domestic carbon emissions and solutions.
The target is likely to cost more than £1 trillion by 2050, between £50-70 billion a year. The problem is not simply the high cost, the political backlash is likely to cause successive governments to ditch the target. To save face, New Zealand had to turn their net-zero target into a non-binding ‘aspiration’ after they considered the extreme costs.
Fortunately, just like producing phones, we can better reach our target by looking for solutions globally. For over a decade charities have offered carbon offsets, where you can pay them about £8 to prevent one tonne of CO2 from being emitted—offsetting the emissions we produce through our lives. Charities that sell carbon offsets then fund projects like renewable energy that reduce carbon emissions elsewhere.
The UK could similarly invest in ways to reduce the carbon emissions of other countries. We have already taken most of the low-hanging fruit to reduce emissions that other countries have not done. In May of 2019, we had the first week where no coal was used to generate our energy. By 2025 the government plans to completely phase out coal-fired power—there will be no coal power plant left to close. After that, we can support others in cutting down on their use of coal-fired power.
What, however, could be the best way of reducing carbon abroad? Notably, it may be protecting trees.
The charity Cool Earth has created agreements with indigenous people to protect rainforests, while helping to set up sustainable farming, schools, and healthcare so locals need not sell their land to loggers. Cool Earth has managed to protect nearly two million acres of forest land, ensuring that more carbon is absorbed and stored in trees. Rainforests, dense with biomass, are able to capture far more carbon than trees planted in Britain covering a similar area.
Saving the planet by protecting trees evokes the naive thinking of hippies, however, research has shown that protecting trees is extremely effective in reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. It is estimated, by Giving What We Can, that Cool Earth is able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a rate of 30 pence per tonne of CO2 equivalent. Using the World Health Organisation’s predictions for the effects of climate change on mortality, Giving What We Can finds a life is saved for every £76,000 donated.
When we consider the other benefits of tackling climate change, protecting rainforests is a no-brainer. It is no wonder that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that reforestation is among “the most cost-effective mitigation options…” for reducing emissions.
Whilst domestically reducing our net emissions from 460 million tonnes to zero would cost around £50 billion a year, with the efficiency of the mentioned carbon offset charities, net-zero would ‘only’ set us back £4 billion a year. Were we to be as efficient as Cool Earth however, we could reach net-zero for approximately £150 million a year. Reaching net-zero could then cost 500 times less if we chose to reduce carbon globally rather than domestically.
It is unlikely that we would be as efficient as the above estimates, but the fact that they could seem so low implies the government is overlooking the vast potential of fighting carbon globally.
Although the government is yet to take a global approach to reach net-zero, it should be commended for good work in protecting rainforests—including a recent £10 million spending pledge. Nonetheless, this is far from enough spending on global solutions to reach net-zero.
But why stop at net-zero? If reducing carbon emissions is so cheap, we could share the burden with the rest of the world. After all, the UK imports many goods and is therefore responsible for carbon emissions in other countries. Regardless of what we are or are not responsible for, it is unlikely that every country will choose to do their part to tackle climate change - especially if their economies rely on oil, manufacturing or agriculture.
The UK’s narrow domestic focus on carbon will carry exorbitant costs and will limit our ability to tackle climate change, not to mention that it’s politically unviable. To fight climate change, it is time we look for solutions globally.