Cooking the Books 1: Who’s to blame for carbon emissions?
In 2004 the Office for National Statistics published a report on “The impact of UK households on the environment through direct and indirect generation of greenhouse gases”. It concluded that of the 718.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted in the UK in 2001 “households were directly or indirectly responsible for 612.4 million”. That’s 85 percent. Can this be right? Is it possible that industry is only responsible for at the very most 15 percent? How can this be?
To arrive at this figure, the government’s statisticians first calculated how much households directly emitted through burning gas, oil, petrol and coal to heat their homes, cook their food, drive their cars, etc and reached a figure of 155.8 million tonnes. To this a further 2.4 million was added to take account of the emission of other greenhouse gases from households’ using aerosols, fridges and air conditioning equipment, giving a total of 158.2 million, or only 21.6 percent of the total.
But the statisticians didn’t stop there. They then proceeded to calculate how much households were responsible for “indirectly”, explaining:
“Indirect greenhouse gas emissions are those arising through household demand for electricity, public transportation and demand for goods and services. Indirect emissions are considered to be embedded in the product purchased. Electricity contains the embedded emissions from the combustion of coal, gas, oil, etc used in its generation. Similarly, food products contain indirect emissions from the use of pesticides and fertilisers as well as enteric emissions from livestock”.
Some might consider it reasonable to include the emissions resulting from the generation of the electricity used by households for lighting, heating, cooking, TV, computer, music centres, etc, but one consequence of this is that responsibility for the emissions is thereby shifted from the power station companies to households. Still, at least the power stations will be held responsible for the emissions resulting from the generation of the electricity supplied to industry, won’t they? No. Read the passage above again: “indirect emissions are considered to be embedded in the product purchased”. What this means is that the electricity consumed in the production of some product purchased by a household is not attributed to the industry that produced it, but to the household that purchased it.
It’s the same with transport. The emissions caused by bus companies, train companies and airlines are not attributed to them, but to their passengers. And, as the above quote specifically says, the emissions from food production – and agriculture contributes quite a bit to greenhouse gas emissions as methane – are to be attributed to us who buy the food.
When all these dubious calculations are done, the government statisticians saddle households with responsibility for a further 456.6 million tonnes of emissions.
But what, on this logic, is left as industry’s responsibility? 15 percent perhaps. No, again. The government is also a final consumer of electricity and products and, on the report’s logic, is to be blamed for the emissions resulting from their production. Though the report does not calculate this, from other statistics it will be more than half of the remaining 15 percent. In the end, industry and agriculture are going to be held responsible only for the emissions generated by what they accumulate as new capital, or about 7 percent. Which is ridiculous.
There is another way of looking at the matter. From the point of view of Marxian economics, wage and salary workers are not final consumers. What we spend on heating, lighting, cooking, travelling, food, recreation, entertainment, etc is expenditure on what we must consume to reproduce our labour power; which we sell to our employer, who in using it is the real final consumer.
So, it’s the other way round. Instead of the emissions caused by capitalist industry being attributed to us, even that from our direct heating, cooking, driving, etc should be “indirectly” attributed to them. They rather than us are responsible for the great bulk of carbon emissions, even if this is in response to the pressure of the competitive struggle for profits that is built into capitalism. So, in the end, it’s the whole capitalist system that’s to blame.