Climate change commitment - RSA

To meet its decarbonisation commitments, the UK needs a manufacturing, care and repair industry


  • Circular economy
  • Making
  • Sustainability

It could be the most important statement that Theresa May has made recently. Today she has announced that the UK ‘will eradicate its net contribution to climate change by 2050’. This means toughening up the targets in the 2008 Climate Change Act to ensure that the UK’s carbon emissions are net zero by 2050.

Alhough this sets a date 25 years beyond the 2025 date demanded by Extinction Rebellion, this is still positive news and we must hope that other countries are galvanised to follow suit.  To keep to an increase of 1.5 degrees we have, globally, to slash emissions by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

How we in the UK get on with meeting these commitments is now critical. And there is a glaring omission in the targets – the emissions that are created in other countries because of our consumption.

Those who bemoan UK action because ‘what about China?’ should remember that some of those emissions are ours. We’ve patted ourselves on the back for reducing emissions 40% on 1990 levels, but have neatly sidestepped responsibility for the impacts felt elswhere from the goods we import: cotton grown in India, destined for our clothes; steel produced in China, destined for our buildings; beans grown in Kenya, destined for our tables. 

Continuing to kick those emissions over the fence is not going to tackle climate breakdown. We must take responsibility for the emissions from all our consumption. Doing this requires not only that we tackle emissions that we have ‘offshored’, but that we invest in a UK industrial base which can produce goods, repair and care for them closer to home.

The recent threats to British Steel exemplify the challenge of losing industry in the UK. In the current calculations the closure of such an energy intensive industry here would do wonders for reducing our emissions. We would continue to consume steel produced elsewhere and feel it a job well done.

Instead, we need to see local industry as a way of reducing our emissions, of keeping materials and goods in use for as long as possible, and as a means to look after those goods.

Take clothing. The vast majority of garments consumed in the UK are made overseas, from materials also grown or produced overseas. When we no longer want them, large volumes are sent overseas once again, into second hand markets, others are landfilled.

We know that this linear economic system is unsustainable, and that we need to reduce the volume of clothing we consume and keep using the garments we have. The UK has a long history of garment production, and the potential for a thriving industry which sees an expansion of the high-quality clothing made here, which sees repair businesses on our high streets to keep those garments maintained, and which creates good quality jobs across the system.

Then imagine this across agriculture, construction and furniture…

Of course, we will not produce everything here. But more local supply chains which follow the principles of the circular economy must be part of the way we use our resources in future.

This involves recognising the value of industry in creating this new future. It includes joining up policies which seek to boost ‘clean growth’ and circular economy with those affecting manufacturers and repair businesses. In our Cities of Making project we have seen the authorities in London promoting circular economy with the one hand, and with the other removing industrial space and disrupting industrial ecosystems.

The UK has not deindustrialised, it has merely moved that industry elsewhere. It’s time we see our own industry as a way to change that.

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