Without a global awareness, Europe’s transition to ‘net zero’ will be a zero-sum game.
What did you do for the planet today? Did you turn out the lights or turn down the heating? Did you pay a little more for the carbon-neutral eggs and seek out the vegetables in season? Did you forgo meat this week, or for ever? For the many Europeans concerned about sustainability—some 93 per cent by recent figures—such questions are a constant, nagging presence. Ninety-six percent may have taken at least one action to tackle climate change but the guilty feeling remains of not doing enough—of overindulging, of forgetting for a moment the atmospheric peril bearing down.
The fundamental framework of global climate action is the Nationally Declared Contributions submitted every five years to the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change by UN member states. Climate Action Tracker grades their ambition—from the ‘critically insufficient’ Turkey, Iran, Thailand, Mexico and others, to the ‘almost sufficient’ efforts of Nepal, Norway, Ethiopia and the United Kingdom. The member states of the European Union fall somewhere in the middle, deemed merely ‘insufficient’ as a whole.
Yet the continent’s leaders inform us that we are well on our way. The European Commission proclaims that the European Green Deal will mean ‘no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050’, with ‘economic growth decoupled from resource use’ and ‘no person and no place left behind’. The EU achieved its goal of a 20 per cent reduction in emissions between 1990 and 2020, reversing over half a century of increases. So it might appear promises are being delivered and we can feel less anxious. But this is not the whole story.
Far less impressive
Europe’s historically global outlook has shaped the world and itself—for better and worse—from the dark days of the Berlin conference in 1884, which set about dividing and apportioning the African continent among the (predominantly) European powers, to today’s vast trade flows, amounting to over €4 trillion in 2022 or 14 per cent of global trade. These enormous industrial connections, which see billions of tons of resources flow through a global factory producing the majority of the goods Europeans use, are no mere afterthought. They are the story, one that flips the narrative of environmental progress.
If we adopt full life-cycle accounting of EU member-state greenhouse-gas emissions, including consumption of imported goods, Europe’s decarbonisation efforts appear far less impressive: emissions grew by 11 per cent on averagebetween 1995 and 2009. Indeed, domestic emissions accounting by wealthy import-dependent economies incentivises the outsourcing of emissions overseas—as the EU implicitly recognises with its Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which entered into force last week.
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Referred to as ‘displacement’ or ‘carbon leakage’, this widespread phenomenon represents a major obstacle to the efficacy of environmental regulation. Yet it is no accident. Unequal trading relations of this sort have been a feature of the global economy for hundreds of years. And so they remain, the legacy of past injustices recast as diverging environmental vulnerabilities—as discussed in my new book, out today.
This is the fallacy of the nationalist mindset which underpins sustainability planning in Europe and elsewhere. Rather than individual states evolving independently towards a green future, we live instead within a web of interconnections, with reduced emissions and cleaner environments in one part of the world often entailing increased emissions and degraded environments elsewhere. This is zero-sum environmentalism, and while it is not the whole story it is a significant and underappreciated part of it.
Healthy and secure environments are becoming increasingly scarce resources, unequally distributed. The dirtiest and most destructive—but still necessary—industrial processes which underpin our way of life have been exported to countries that must bear their long-term impacts. Contemporary global supply chains increase environmental risks through greenhouse-gas emissions while siphoning off the resources needed to deal with them. Rather than environmental progress, this is environmental trade.
Hence on an overall global scale little has changed, as grimly attested by the stubborn failure of atmospheric carbon-dioxide emissions to decline despite years of declared reductions by major emitters. To a large extent, the problem is simply being kicked into the long grass of transnational production processes.
This shines a quite different light on the major environmental questions of our day. How can we, as privileged inhabitants of the rich world, meaningfully contribute to tackling the climate crisis, in a way that recognises our integration and connection to the world?
Above all, we must think not as consumers but as citizens, bearers of a collective political power over our economy. Rather than choosing greener products in the supermarket aisles, we must instead lobby for greater oversight of them—stronger independent authority to ensure the international supply chains that connect us to the rest of the world do not become loopholes for our environmental effluvia.
For a long time this was unthinkable, but green shoots of change are sprouting. In July 2021, the German parliament approved the Supply Chain Act, which opens the door for independent oversight of the global supply chains of companies based in Germany and action against corporate offenders. It is far from perfect and critics brand it a political compromise, but it marks the beginning of a paradigm shift away from corporate self-governance. And in February last year, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a directive on corporate-sustainability due diligence, which is still in train.
Environmental legislation passed by major countries in the last five years, though partial and limited, has opened the door for communities and non-governmental organisations to hit back against the systems of production that undervalue and degrade their environments. In 2020, 22 cases were filed against corporations for environmental abuses worldwide. In 2021, that number was 38. These legal actions range over misleading claims as to clean energy, proposed investment in carbon-intensive projects, lack of adhesion to relevant climate-change and environmental regulation and failure to reduce CO2 emissions.
Every one of these cases is bringing a voice to the voiceless, illuminating the deeply integrated underbelly of our global economy. And they are just the beginning.
Laurie Parsons is senior lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London and principal investigator of the projects 'The Disaster Trade: the hidden footprint of UK imports and investment overseas' and 'Hot Trends: how the global garment industry shapes climate vulnerability in Cambodia'.