Why local consumption-based carbon accounting is good for policy

This is a guest post is by Warren Hatter who advises on local low carbon policy and the use of behavioural insights. 

When DECC published a report on consumption-based emissions reporting last week, the local perspective was only hinted at. But it jumped out at me during the evidence sessions that, in the absence of a localist (or at least pro-local governance) voice, the opportunity this presents for local areas could be lost.

Our national carbon footprint
Let’s consider the vital issue of outsourcing emissions. From a national perspective, the situation is becoming more acute. In the UK, we import more and more goods and services whose supply chain carbon emissions are not counted by policy-makers. And recent, unpublished, data suggests that the carbon intensity of Chinese production is greater than that of UK produced goods to a much greater extent than was previously realised.

Nonetheless, the reason I have said that a focus on territorial emissions is an ‘understandable conceit’ for central government is that it has little prospect of influencing the carbon intensity of Chinese production, whereas there are levers for making European and UK production less carbon-intensive. This reluctance to show an interest in supply chain footprints is a product of the relationship government has with industry, which will not be disrupted by apparently moral arguments about taking responsibility for the footprint of the goods and services we buy and use.

The local perspective
Local government, in contrast, is all about place. At least, it is when it is ambitious. So the case for consumption metrics is not at all disruptive. When you look at the breakdown of a consumption-based carbon footprint of a place (see page 2 of this paper for example), you are gaining a real insight into a locality and its residents. It tells us about what they buy and use. You can even imagine what it might look like in a low carbon future.

The same is true, of course, of the footprint of a nation (there’s a UK footprint in Mike Berners-Lee’s How bad are bananas?); it’s just that local government doesn’t have the same barriers to using this approach. Councils have used territorial accounting until now because it has been mandated by central government. Now, we can use consumption measures because it is better management information than if we only use a territorial approach.

Good for policy makers
Local government voices have been key in showing the Committee that, although consumption-based emissions are harder to measure than territorial emissions, they are easier to understand and good for policy-makers. This, too, is worth expanding on.

Mike Berners-Lee and I have played a game with hundreds of people in a range of audiences that demonstrates that almost none of us, if asked to consider the footprint of something, differentiates between emissions here and emissions elsewhere. Most of us do not yet take the carbon footprint of a product into account when deciding whether to purchase, but if it became the norm to do so, a UK/non-UK distinction would be meaningless. I have no doubt at all that transparent emissions reduction policy on a consumption basis would be easier for the public to understand.

All of this raises the question of how we can incentivise the behaviour change needed. Simply getting policy-makers to understand this perspective and start taking it into account would be progress. This is what Greater Manchester has started to do. Beyond that, we need a policy framework: West Sussex CC and the Lake District NPA have taken the bold step of committing their places to a consumption-based carbon budget, based on the same rate of emissions reductions as the Climate Change Act (which refers only to territorial emissions).

Where it gets exciting
With a policy framework in place, it becomes possible to align budgets and strategies behind this, which is where it gets exciting. We can breakdown the footprint analysis to express it in behavioural terms (what is it that people do or buy that creates this impact?); and we can model the impact of different types of investment, whether it is in developing local supply networks for food or investing in cycling facilities. Mostly, this is about managing demand, which local government is well versed in, and will become more so as demographic and financial pressures on local services increase, and creating a genuinely low carbon local economy.

The other part of the picture is communications. I’m not sure that any place has nailed this yet, but the fact that the consumption footprint is, essentially, intuitive, makes communicating it much more straightforward than anything like NI186. More exciting still, it means that we can show a link between people’s behaviour and the carbon result.  Until now my local authority has only been interested in my behaviour in relation to home energy and transport. Imagine a local equivalent of 10:10’s approach. (In fact, please let me know if one of the authorities that signed up has already done this.)

I hope that, before long, we will see dozens more local authorities starting to take consumption metrics seriously. I’ll admit that, when we started developing local approaches, it was because it felt like the right thing to do. Now, I’m convinced it leads to better policy, clearer communications and, in the long run, better places.

Warren’s Ripple Effect blog can be found at warrenhatter.wordpress.com.

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