Original Carbon Sins

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

I see that Tony Blair has said that the public must not be asked to do a “huge amount” to tackle climate change.  His point was that Britain’s national efforts cannot contribute much to solving global warming.  He pointed out that what the UK could achieve would be minute compared to what China might do.

How refreshing that the Great Helmsman is saying this.  Though obvious, it's a truth that universally usually gets lost in arguments that we need to take the global lead.  It’s our government’s responsibility it seems, as it represents a now-faded great power, to show the rest of the world the way; and our responsibility, as mostly uninvolved citizens, to pay for it.  More likely, of course, that our grandchildren (and theirs) will be doing this if we load ourselves with costly debt trying to lead the way.

Our problems are two-fold and intertwined: [i] a hubristic view that we have such a responsibility, and [ii] our guilt for starting the industrial revolution.  But China has generated more CO2 over the past decade than the UK has since 1750.  Between then and 2020, the UK produced some 78 billion tonnes, compared with China’s contribution of around 80 billion tonnes over the past 10 years or so.  But as China still considers itself a developing country it spares itself any responsibility, despite having emitted 14% of all emissions throughout history.  Only the United States has done more with around 25% of emissions over time. By comparison, we have produced about 4.6% of all emissions and ~ 80% of these were before 1990 following which we have taken a few successful steps to decouple economic growth from CO2 emissions.

Time for realism, I think.  I wrote this in early 2020:

"So maybe the UK's problem is a matter of original sin.  Because we started the industrial revolution, numbers don't matter and we are now expected to bear a heavy responsibility and expiate our guilt.  But it's not really our fault as the industrial revolution would have begun somewhere else at a later point if it hadn't been started here."

So, lots of sackcloth and (non-carbon) ashes.

However, as Richard Rhodes writes about the Manhattan Project,* "nuclear fission and thermonuclear fusion are ... levers embedded deeply in the physical world, discovered because it was possible to discover them, beyond the power of men to patent or hoard".

If we hadn't done it, some other northern European country would have – the Germans probably.   So let's remove the hair shirts from our national wardrobe and face the troubles of the present without always trying to apologise for what our ancestors did.


*Richard Rhodes (1986) The Making of the Atomic Bomb; London: Simon & Schuster p. 538

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response