The UK's outsourced emissions almost double its carbon footprint
- 12 Mar 2012, 11:00
- Ros Donald
CC Mikebaird / Flickr
report released with little publicity calculates the UK's
carbon emissions with an important difference. It includes carbon
"embedded" in imported goods, making for a UK carbon footprint
approximately twice as large as that calculated from emissions
alone. Since these figures have been measured for a couple of
years now, this raises the question of why the UK and other
countries continue to rely on figures for domestic emissions
production as the basis for climate policy.
The research from the UK's department for environment, food and
rural affairs (Defra) was published late last week. It concludes
that while the country's carbon footprint shrank during the
financial crisis, the economy's shift away from manufacturing to
services means we're importing more and more emissions 'embedded'
in goods from other countries.
This kind of consumption-based emissions reporting isn't the
standard approach, although Defra has been publishing these figures
for a couple of years now. At present, the UK and Europe measure
targets for carbon emissions reductions based on domestic
production, not consumption. Likewise, when countries negotiate
their relative responsibility for cutting emissions, they only take
their home-grown carbon emissions into account.
But Defra's analysis underlines that this method is missing
something. Developed countries with a smaller manufacturing base
can report shrinking carbon emissions based on their domestic
production, but when adjusted for their trading patterns their
record looks less impressive.
The UK's new carbon footprint
Defra stresses that according to the University of Leeds's centre for sustainable
accounting - which has been contracted by the department to
measure these statistics - the UK's carbon footprint fell by nine
per cent between 2008 and 2009 (if the UK follows
global trends, this may well be a short term fall due to the
financial crisis, however, rather than a longer-term
But the figures also reveal that the UK's 2009 carbon footprint
was 20 per cent greater than it was in 1990, with a huge doubling
in CO2 emissions related to imports. When the CO2 embedded in
imported goods and services is taken into account, the UK carbon
footprint calculated on the basis of consumer spending is nearly
double the figure that comes from measuring emissions from UK
production - just over 700 million tonnes of CO2 as opposed to
around 400 million tonnes.
What it means
At present, Defra suggests the statistics are there to help
consumers choose the products they buy responsibly. More broadly, a
Defra spokesperson told us the statistics reveal "emissions
embedded in imported products are still far too high, which shows
just how critical it is that we agree a global deal on climate
But it doesn't look like this more complete picture of carbon
emissions is informing policy - apart from reiterating the UK's
commitment to a global emissions deal. What's more, with the
numbers somewhat buried on
the Defra website, we're skeptical that consumers are being
informed that effectively.
This isn't the first time the issue of so-called offshored
emissions has been raised. Thinktank Policy Exchange estimated in a
2010 report that the
UK's import-embedded CO2 increased by 30 per cent between 1990 and
2006. The Carbon Trust has also tried to
measure how carbon is embedded in trade and consumption flows,
particularly in relation to energy intensive industries such as
Policy Exchange says carbon consumption figures have important
domestic and international policy implications. Focusing resources
on domestic production fails to address the climate impact of
imported carbon emissions, it argues.
Guy Newey, a senior research fellow at Policy Exchange, adds:
"It is vital that the UK makes efforts to measure not just our
production of greenhouse gases but also our consumption. Europe's
efforts to lead by example risk being undermined if carbon cuts at
home are only the result of shipping emissions abroad."
The Public Interest Research Centre has also
worked on this issue and
evidence to parliament on methods of measuring carbon
Guy Shrubsole, one of the centre's directors, told Carbon Brief
that Defra's research gets little attention in contrast with
figures based solely on domestic carbon emissions, which paint a
more optimistic, downward trend. "It seems like a cop-out on the
part of the government given that this research is being done but
not publicised or used to drive policy," he argues.
But consumption-based emissions accounting is an idea that if
applied internationally would have fairly serious implications for
international climate politics. Former US President George Bush
to sign up to the Kyoto protocol during his tenure, arguing it
didn't reflect the fact that developing countries' emissions are
growing - especially in China - while developed countries are
Canada followed suit last year with a
similar explanation. If it became accepted that we should take
into account how much of China's carbon emissions come from
producing things for Europe and America, this could alter the
calculus of global emissions reduction significantly.
Dr Harald Heubaum, a lecturer in global energy and climate
policy at the School of Oriental and African Studies says Defra's
figures could prove problematic for the UK government as it has
avoided taking consumption-based emissions into account for "quite
He says the figures show that although the UK's
consumption-based emissions are now as high as its production-based
emissions, "under the Kyoto Protocol and current government policy
it is only the latter that count and that is a serious omission,"
adding that this new way of measuring carbon footprints could
create a fairer basis for international negotiations.
New carbon measures
Measuring carbon consumption is still a relatively new
idea, but it's fair to say that consumption-based carbon
calculating has the potential to upset the applecart, both when it
comes to developed countries' claims to be reducing carbon
emissions, and the basis of international agreement on reducing
The UK may only have direct control over domestic emissions, but
it still an influential trading partner and has a prominent place
in international negotiations where fast-developing countries such
as China, India and Brazil are proving to be a much stronger
presence against the US and other traditional heavy-hitters, and
are far more likely to want to push for consumption-based measures.
Like it or not, consumption footprints could be big news.