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UK emissions are down seven per cent - but DECC is missing something big

  • 29 Mar 2012, 18:00
  • Ros Donald

We really hate to rain on the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC)'s parade. It published figures today showing that the UK's carbon emissions fell by seven per cent last year. But the statistics don't include the amount of CO2 embedded in imports -  an amount which risen sharply as the UK's manufacturing base has shrunk.

The provisional figures show the UK's net CO2 emissions amounted to  456.3 million tonnes in 2011. In 2010, they were 495.8 million tonnes.

The UK's emissions of other greenhouse gases went down as well - from 92.0 million tonnes to 90.4 million tonnes. Meanwhile, the UK's Kyoto greenhouse gas basket -  a different measure to the one DECC headlines on - is down from 590.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions to 549.3 million tonnes.  

The problem with this measurement, however, is that, mitigation efforts aside, UK emissions from industry have gone down in large part because the country no longer has the manufacturing capacity it once had.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, Europe's emissions reductions targets and the UK's Climate Change Act, the UK is expected to make greenhouse gas cuts based on its domestic emissions. Like other developed countries with a smaller manufacturing base, the UK can report shrinking carbon emissions by this measure. But when adjusted for the impact of international trade, DECC's announcement looks less impressive.

Last month, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) issued a report that illustrates this point. It show that once the 'embedded' emissions from the increased number of imports we now buy are included, our carbon footprint nearly doubles.

Unfortunately it's not possible to do a like-for-like comparison because Defra's report only calculates the UK's carbon footprint including consumption up until 2009. But the trend looks pretty clear - while the UK's carbon emissions are indeed going down, they are much higher once you take into account greenhouse gases from the products we consume which are produced outside the UK.

We blogged the Defra report when it came out, though it didn't get much publicity from the department. One commentator remarked at the time that it "seems like a cop-out on the part of the government" that the work is being done internally but not publicised or used to drive policy.

It's not altogether surprising, however, given that the trend presented by the consumption-based figures is far less optimistic.

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