Will more paperwork avert global catastrophe?

I am on the committee of a small music society which organises chamber music concerts.  We have just been asked by the funding authority to make formal returns about our carbon emissions, based on the distance and method of travel to be used by the musicians who visit.   I thought it was unlikely that itinerant musicians had been singled out as making a major contribution to climate change, so I looked around to see who else has been included in this sort of request.  This led me to DEFRA’s Guidance on how to measure and report your greenhouse gas emissions, published in 2009.  This gives the example of how  a countryside Bed and Breakfast can calculate its own part in world destruction.  The 2009 code was  voluntary for smaller organisations.   What’s been happening, however, is that funding and grant-making authorities are passing down the responsibility to smaller units.

There are two main reasons why governments ask for this kind of return.  In part, it’s based in the belief that it will help to make people aware of the issues, and change the way that they behave – the process of making returns becomes a form of public education.  There may be examples where this is helpful – gender equality, disability discrimination, and distributive assessments among them.  The more requirements we put on an organisation, however, the greater is the overall burden of administration.  The voluntary sector already has heavy duties relating to the protection of vulnerable people, risk assessment, financial transparency  and public benefit.   Every new priority ought to be asking whether making such returns is an effective way to achieve the desired end.

The other main reason for asking for this kind of return is that government wants to collect the information.  This is not the way to count anything.  If we get selective returns from miscellaneous small organisations we will not be able to do anything with it, and it’s questionable that we can even use the data validly as a sample; but even if all organisations receiving public money make the return, the information cannot be extended to understanding carbon emissions more generally.  If the government wants to know how much energy is being used in total, it needs to look at supply, not demand;  it is the energy suppliers who hold the information about what kinds of fuel we burn, how much, and in which sector.  If it wants to get a sense of the relationship of different types of economic activity to energy use, any social scientist could tell them immediately that they should be looking to relate a sample against the totals they already know, not trying to census everyone’s activity.   As a source of information, this exercise is pointless.


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