May 19 2020

Dr Laurie Parsons, Department of Geography, has recently received funding for a new project researching British trade with Cambodia and Bangladesh, and how it contributes to UK emissions. The project entitled 'The Next Frontier of Climate Policy: Joining the Dots of Bricks, Trade and Embodied Emissions from Cambodia and Bangladesh to the UK' will take one year to complete. We recently caught up with Dr Parsons to ask how he will spend his time, and to explain his research further. 

1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your role within the Department of Geography?

I’ve been with the department since 2017, when I arrived as co-investigator of the Blood Bricks project, working with Katherine Brickell. I was lucky enough to be awarded a British Academy Fellowship soon afterwards, but chose to continue working with Blood Bricks for the next year, which was a great decision. The project examined the nexus of modern slavery and climate change in the Cambodian brick industry – a previously little-known sector – and was brilliantly communicated by our photojournalist Thomas Cristofoletti. The combination of personal stories of labouring in a changing climate with Thomas’s incredible images really inspired people, kick starting some valuable changes in Cambodia and beyond.

2. You have recently received funding for a new project entitled ‘The Next Frontier of Climate Policy: Joining the Dots of Bricks, Trade and Embodied Emissions from Cambodia and Bangladesh to the UK’ when did you start taking a research interest in British trade?

Ever since I first started researching in Cambodia, around the time of the 2008 financial crash, there has always been something of an industrial focus to my work. At that time, I was able to witness first hand how garment workers struggled to cope with the impacts of the great recession and was surprised to learn that the UK was one of the world’s biggest buyers of Cambodian garments. It struck me at the time that these were essentially our factory workers being hung out to dry without labour rights or compensation and the same thread has run through much of my subsequent work.

This latest project pursues a similar line of argument, but with a more environmental focus, examining how the goods we import from countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh come at a significant ecological and human cost to the exporter. Many people may be surprised to learn that we are the world’s largest importer of bricks, for example – 8% of our total brick stock is imported, in many cases from countries like Bangladesh, India and China – and outside of the UK this is an extremely dirty and exploitative industry which leaves a big toll on local environments and populations. Yet our national environmental and labour standards abrogate responsibility entirely for this cost. One of the key goals of the project is to change this.

3. The project is to be worked on for 12 months, can you tell us how you will be spending that time?

This is my first project as Principal Investigator, so it is something of a new experience. Normally I am in the thick of the research in-country, but this time I’m playing more of a management role, working with teams in Bangladesh, Cambodia and the UK to get the data we need. Covid permitting, I still hope to get out to make it out to some of the sites we are exploring in the new year though, especially to speak to people in Bangladeshi brick kilns, where debt bondage and conditions are reportedly even worse than the Cambodian equivalents explored in Blood Bricks.

4. Do you think people will be surprised to learn about the UK carbon footprint when they consider the measurement of emissions outside our borders?

Britain likes to present itself as a world leader in carbon emissions reduction. An oft cited figure is that we have reduced our carbon footprint by 44% by 1990. This sounds impressive, but it depends on ignoring the increasingly globalised nature of our national economy. As our manufacturing sector has declined, we rely increasingly on imports for our everyday needs – from clothes to cars to computer parts – but these things haven’t stopped being dirty to make, we simply don’t count them in our statistics any more as they are produced overseas. If you include the carbon embodied in the products we use, rather than simply what is made on our shores then then our net carbon footprint has reduced only about 10% over 30 years. We are not solving the problem, but simply moving it.

5. What do you enjoy most about working at Royal Holloway?

I’ve always enjoyed working at Royal Holloway. The Geography Department here is one of the most critical and creative I have come across, as well as a friendly and relaxed environment to work and study in. I’ve learned a huge amount in a relatively short time in the department, so I’m delighted to be starting a lectureship here when my fellowship finishes in January. It’s a real privilege to be able to continue teaching and learning alongside inspiring colleagues and students.

6. How do you like to spend your time outside of work currently?

A couple of months ago I would have had a far more interesting answer to this question, but “the before times” seem a long way away right now. I’ve always been a big reader so that’s something I can still enjoy, but other than that the last couple of months have been a story of home improvement, krautrock and overindulgence at the deli. Very excited about the Bundesliga’s return this weekend though. Hey FC Union stürme hinaus!