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The UK's outsourced emissions almost double its carbon footprint

  • 12 Mar 2012, 11:00
  • Ros Donald

CC Mikebaird / Flickr

A government  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 trend). 

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.

Carbon footprint chart

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 change." 

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. 

Policy implications 

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 steel.

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 submitted evidence to parliament on methods of measuring carbon consumption.

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. 

International implications

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 famously refused 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 cutting theirs.

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 some time".

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 emissions.

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.

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