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Who did the dirty work? Energy and trade in Europe, 1800-1970

Funded by the Swedish Research Council and run by Paul Warde in partnership with Lund University.

National Maritime Museum

The global relationship between economic growth, resource availability and carbon emissions has substantial implications for our understanding of where society is heading. A crucial issue is whether our consumption is becoming less polluting and more ‘de-materialized’ over time. Typically this issue has been studied at a national level, but in a globalized age research has increasingly become sensitive to the degree that the consumption patterns of one country may draw on goods produced elsewhere. Thus apparent falls in emissions, pollution, and consumption of materials in one country may simply be a matter of displacing resource pressures and damages elsewhere.

China is often perceived as the workshop of the world, producing large amounts of cheap consumption goods for others.  A century ago Britain and Germany (along with the United States) played a similar role both for Europe and globally. In these ‘workshops of the world’ energy and other resources are used to produce goods not only for domestic consumption, but to satisfy foreign demand. This means that national levels of both energy consumption and CO2 emissions may look profoundly different when international trade is taken into account: the so-called consumption based approach.

This project investigates the energy and CO2 history of Europe from the consumption side, building on previous work on national energy accounting (see The project is constructing a new database to facilitate this analysis: TEG (Trade, Energy, Growth). TEG will connect European countries c.1800-1970, through their trade patterns. The energy used for production of traded commodities, the so called energy “embodied” in trade, will be calculated, as well as the related CO2 emissions. We have been able to quantify the share of national energy use going into trade for the period 1870-1935 and shown how Britain, for example, devoted around a fifth of its energy use in 1870 directly to producing goods for export (a similar proportion to China today), predominately metals. 

The project is also re-assessing the flow of resources between the European industrial core and the non-European periphery in terms of “ghost acres”, i. e. calculate the amount of land necessary to produce the resources from both parties. This will take up the debate with one of the most influential books of the past decade: Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence. Pomeranz explained the economic advance of Europe relative to East Asia during the 19th century as being the result of a greatly increased resource base, by using firstly domestically-mined coal, and secondly land-based resources such as food and fibres extracted from the colonies. Pomeranz focused in particular upon cotton as the raw material for British industrialization, but this argument could equally be expanded to other resources such as the alkalis extracted from vegetable potash imported from North America and Russia. Pomeranz did not, however, consider flows in the other direction: European exports. He assumed, as has much of world-system theory, that the ‘metropolitan’ economies developed high skill and capital intensive economies on the backs of essentially extractive, resource intensive economies in the economic ‘periphery’.

Our work shows that the net flow of ‘energy-saving’ resource exploitation was away from Britain towards its trading partners for most of the 19th century, thanks to the embodied energy of coal used in manufacturing exports. However, the amount of land overseas required by the British economy still role still rose one-hundred fold between the 1830s and 1900s. At the earlier date, the use of land overseas predominately related to potash, and later wool rose in importance, rather than the more familiar ‘colonial goods’.

Publications from the project:

 ‘Trade and overcoming land constraints in British Industrialization – an empirical assessment’, Journal of Global History, (forthcoming, 2018) with Dimitris Theodoridis, Paul Warde, and Astrid Kander.

‘Fuelling the English Breakfast:  Hidden Energy Flows in the Anglo-Danish Trade 1870-1913’ in Regional Environmental Change, (2018), with Sofia Henriques and Paul Warde. 

‘International Trade and Energy Intensity during European Industrialization, 1870–1935’, Ecological Economics 139 (2017), 33-44, with Astrid Kander, Paul Warde, Sofia Henriques, Hana Nielsen, Viktoras Kulionis, and Sven Hagen.