Are the UK's emissions really falling or has it outsourced them to China?

  • 19 Mar 2015, 18:00
  • Simon Evans

Government claims to be leading the world on emissions reductions have been challenged by new research, the BBC reports today.

The BBC says UK emissions are rising, not falling, once pollution in imported goods from the likes of China are included. In fact, UK emissions including imports are below 1990 levels, while a larger share of the UK's imported emissions come from Europe than from China.

Carbon Brief explores the new research on the UK's imported emissions, and considers the implications for global climate politics.

Consumption versus production

Traditional emissions accounting only considers the greenhouse gases generated within a country's own borders. In other words, emissions produced in the UK are allocated to the UK. On this measure, UK emissions have fallen dramatically to around 25% below 1990 levels.

But this impressive record is illusory, the BBC report says, because of emissions embedded in imported goods. This is not a new idea. For instance, this 2012 Guardian article reports MPs' claims that the UK has "merely outsourced emissions to China".

Consumption-based accounting attempts to acknowledge this issue, adding up its impact on the UK's total climate footprint. It adds emissions embedded in imports to the UK's footprint by tracking global trade from the point of purchase of goods and services back to their origin.

If someone in the UK buys an Audi or an iPhone, then the UK is handed responsibility for the emissions needed to make them. Using this method, new research from the University of Leeds finds the UK's record looks less impressive, with emissions in 2012 just 7% below 1990 levels.

Imports mostly not from China

The UK's imported emissions have increased over the past two decades so that they now make up around half of the UK's climate footprint, as the chart below shows. The UK's production emissions have fallen fast (dark blue area), but imports have offset much of the gain (lighter blues, purples and grey area).

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 At 14.49.32

Source: University of Leeds Sustainability Research Institute. Graph by Carbon Brief.

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Daily Briefing | Budget: North Sea oil to benefit from tax cuts

  • 19 Mar 2015, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Budget 2015: North Sea oil to benefit from tax cuts 
Two climate and energy items grabbed headlines after the chancellor's last pre-election budget. First, what the Financial Times calls a "sharp" £1.3 billion tax cut for North Sea oil. This was also covered by The Telegraph, which separately calls the cuts "too little too late". Energy firm shares were lifted by the news, reports Reuters. Second, Osborne's support for a start to formal talks over a tidal energy lagoon at Swansea reported by the Financial Timesthe BBCthe Telegraph and Mail Online. The lagoon would be a world first, reports Bloomberg. Business Green rounds up the mixed reaction from green business and disappointment from green groups. It also reports Ed Miliband's accusation that Osborne has been a "malign influence" on climate policy and carries an opinion piece from Labour's Barry Gardiner who says the government has "mounted a wholesale attack" on the Climate Change Act. Carbon Brief has a budget round-up here.  Financial Times 

Climate and energy news

Countries agree plan in Sendai to save lives from disasters 
187 countries forged an agreement yesterday towards protecting people and assets from global disasters. The Sendai Framework includes the target to "substantially reduce" loss of life from 2005-15 levels in 2020-30 and to reduce economic losses in relation to global GDP by 2030. Aid agencies have criticised the agreement as vaguely worded with no specific numbers, says RTCC. Reuters says some experts have hailed the agreement as "a leap forward". RTCC 

Amazon's trees removed nearly a third less carbon in last decade 
Manmade carbon emissions will need to be cut more deeply to tackle climate change after scientists found the amount of carbon Amazon trees removed from the atmosphere fell by almost a third last decade, reports The Guardian. Lead author Roel Brienen of the University of Leeds tells Reuters that forest growth has flatlined over the last decade as trees are growing faster but also dying faster. Carbon Brief covered the new research here. The Guardian

Forecasters reveal this winter was actually the warmest on record 
The three-month period from December to February was the warmest winter on record, according to new data from the US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. This suggests the record warm year of 2014 was no fluke and, together with a weak El Niño underway in the Pacific, 2015 has a decent shot at exceeding the 2014 record, predicts MashableUK's Andrew FreedmanThe Daily Mail 

CO2 cuts claim sees ministers challenged by experts 
A report by Leeds University researchers says the UK is responsible for more emissions than government estimates suggest, because the figures don't take into account emissions embodied in the manufacture of goods that are imported to the UK. Today's report calls for consumption-based emissions to be published alongside official domestic ones to give a more accurate picture of countries' responsibility for outsourced emissions ahead of Paris talks later his year. BBC News 

Chernobyl: Containing the world's worst nuclear accident 
The first stages of construction have begin on a huge dome to encapsulate the nuclear reactor that exploded at the Chernobyl power plant in 1986. The structure, the height of St Paul's cathedral and designed to withstand a category 6 earthquake, should provide protection for a century from the 100 tonnes of uranium, one tonne of plutonium and other radioactive elements contained inside the reactor. BBC News

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Amazon rainforest is taking up a third less carbon than a decade ago

  • 18 Mar 2015, 18:05
  • Robert McSweeney

Amazon at dawn | P. van der Sleen

The amount of carbon that the Amazon rainforest is absorbing from the atmosphere and storing each year has fallen by around a third in the last decade, says a new 30-year study by almost 100 researchers.

This decline in the Amazon carbon sink amounts to one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide - equivalent to over twice the UK's annual emissions, the researchers say.

If this pattern exists in other forests around the world, deeper cuts in human-caused carbon dioxide emissions are needed to meet climate targets, the researchers say.

Three billion trees

The Amazon rainforest is the largest rainforest in the world. Spanning nine countries in South America, it's 25 times the size of the UK.

Using a process known as photosynthesis, the Amazon's three billion trees convert carbon dioxide, water and sunlight into the fuel they need to grow, locking up carbon in their trunks and branches.

As they grow, Amazon trees account for a quarter of the carbon dioxide absorbed by the land each year. Studies suggest that as human-caused carbon dioxide emissions increase, forests will absorb and store more carbon, assuming they have enough water and nutrients to grow.

But a new study, published today in Nature , suggests the Amazon has passed saturation point for how much extra carbon it can take up.

Diminishing carbon sink

A team of almost 500 people monitored trees in more than 300 sites across eight countries. Between 1983 and 2011, the researchers measured the trees in each plot, recording the number, size and density to calculate how much carbon each one stored.

The trees took up more carbon and grew more quickly during the 1990s, before levelling off since the year 2000. You can see this in the middle chart below.

Brienen Et Al (2015) Fig1

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Why is a disaster risk reduction deal important for climate change?

  • 18 Mar 2015, 18:00
  • Sophie Yeo

Disasters | Shutterstock

In Japan today, representatives from 186 governments signed a new UN framework on disaster risk reduction.

It is the first in a triad of 2015 agreements that will determine how the world deals with development in the face of climate change, inequality and rising urbanisation. This is likely to include the UN's new Sustainable Development Goals in September, followed by a new climate change agreement in December.

Carbon Brief explains why today's deal is important for climate change, and how it fits in with the two deals expected later this year. 

The deal signed today replaces the Hyogo Framework for Action, the UN's previous disaster risk reduction deal, which expires this year.

Since this agreement was signed in 2005, disasters have killed more than 700,000 people, and made 23 million homeless, and caused total economic losses of more than $1.3 trillion, the new treaty points out.

Not all disasters relate to climate change, though. For instance, some are attributable to, say, earthquakes and volcanic activity. However, a new UN report calculates that 87% of disasters are caused by hazards of the air and oceans, including cyclones, floods, heat waves and storm surges.


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Budget 2015: Key climate and energy announcements

  • 18 Mar 2015, 15:00
  • Simon Evans and Sophie Yeo

Chancellor George Osborne today delivered his final budget before the general election in May. Along with a few pre-election treats for voters, there were some important energy and climate announcements, from cutting North sea oil tax rates to opening more talks on a tidal power scheme in Swansea.

Here's a summary of the key announcements:

North sea tax breaks

The chancellor said the fall in oil prices "poses a pressing danger to the future of our North Sea [oil and gas] industry" and promised a series of tax breaks worth £1.3 billion over the next five years. The government's aim is to maximise extraction of North sea reserves.

Osborne said there will be a "single, simple and generous tax allowance to stimulate investment at all stages of the industry". The budget document says government will "substantially reduce oil and gas taxes". The BBC explains the details, which includes a back-dated 10 percentage point reduction in the "supplementary charge", a top-up tax paid by the North sea industry.

The government will spend £20 million on seismic surveys in untapped regions of the North sea "to catalyse exploration". Today's tax breaks add to those announced last year. The House of Commons library has a detailed explainer on North sea oil taxes available here .

Friends of the Earth say Osborne had already given tax breaks worth £3 billion in previous budgets. The government says the breaks are not   subsidies, as oil firms still pay the usual rate of corporation tax. However, the Treasury will forego a substantial amount of income.

It says the tax breaks will see "at least 120 million barrels of oil" in additional production over five years. Carbon Brief analysis suggests this would increase emissions by 45 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, around 10% of the UK's annual total, if it adds to the amount of oil that would have otherwise been extracted and burnt at a global level.

Government support for the North sea industry has been compared to subsidy for a dying industry by Reuters columnist John Kemp.

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Factcheck: The true cost of UK renewables policy

  • 18 Mar 2015, 13:00
  • Simon Evans

Windfarm | Shutterstock

The true cost of UK renewables policy is massively understated and household bills could be £214 per year lower if renewables were dropped in favour of gas, according to a report published today by the Centre for Policy Studies, a free-market thinktank.

The report has been covered by the Telegraph, with a focus on the cost of renewables, and by the Daily Mail, which says "Green targets 'cost £214 a year'".

The report's cost estimates are out of line with government figures and its proposed alternative to renewables of relying on gas would be incompatible with UK climate targets. Carbon Brief takes you through some of the details with the help of several energy policy experts.

Cost of low-carbon

Today's new report says it costs UK households £214 a year to support renewables. This is based on a set of simple calculations and assumptions, for instance, that peak UK electricity demand is 60 gigawatts. This overestimates the need for new capacity as demand is much lower and was around 53 gigawatts last winter.

The estimate differs from government figures, which suggest the cost of supporting renewables was £45 in 2014 and will rise to £92 in 2020 and £127 in 2030. It's worth noting that the 2030 figure would include support for new nuclear plants as well as renewables.

The report claims these figures hide the true cost of renewables, such as the cost of strengthening power grids and providing backup for intermittent renewables.

But in a statement Gordon Edge, director of policy for Renewable UK, says:

"The report… makes claims about the cost of grid investment and 'backup' which are either massively overstated, attribute extra costs which have already been accounted for in the price, or both."

The government's Committee on Climate Change (CCC) also says renewables costs to households are much lower than the report's estimate. The CCC puts them at £35 in 2013, £75 in 2020 and £95 in 2030. It says these figures include the cost of balancing renewables.

Overall, the CCC says decarbonising the power sector by 2030 "would have very limited impact on electricity prices in the 2020s relative to alternative approaches". The CCC has a useful page on frequently asked questions around climate change and the costs of UK action.

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Daily Briefing | George Osborne to announce tidal power scheme

  • 18 Mar 2015, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

George Osborne to announce tidal power scheme 
George Osborne, the chancellor, will use today's budget to unveil an "ambitious and costly plan" to build the world's first tidal lagoon to generate green energy, according to a frontpage story. The move, says the paper, comes alongside controversial measures to lower taxes for North Sea oil schemes in a bid to stem plummeting levels of UK oil exploration and production. It adds: "The government will announce that it is entering formal negotiations on funding a £1bn project to produce electricity from turbines in Swansea Bay, south Wales." Meanwhile, the BBC says the "oil and gas industry has high expectations this year's budget will deliver substantial tax cuts". The Guardian 

Climate and energy news

Guardian petition for fossil fuel divestment receives 60,000 signatures 
In less than 24 hours, more than 60,000 readers have joined the Guardian's campaign asking the world's largest charitable foundations - the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust - to divest their endowments from fossil fuels. The paper's extensive coverage of climate change continues elsewhere with a picture gallery of the Pacific islands "losing a way of life to climate change" and an article on "how companies make us forget we need to consume less to stop climate change".  The Guardian 

Green energy costs 'far higher than ministers admit' 
A new report by the Centre for Policy Studies, a freemarket thinktank, claims that the "true cost" of wind farms and other green power projects is far higher than ministers have admitted. Scrapping the UK's green energy targets in favour of gas-fired power plants would save consumers £214 a year by 2020, the report suggests. The Daily Mail reports that the study concludes the rush for renewable energy has been the "most expensive policy disaster in modern British history". ReNews reports the reaction of RenewablesUK, whose spokesperson says the report is "shallow", contains "extreme assertions" and is spoiled by the author's "dogmatic refusal to countenance any action to reduce carbon emissions". Daily Telegraph 

Pacific nations to highlight Cyclone Pam in climate change talks 
Pacific Islands devastated by Cyclone Pam at the weekend will be using the disaster to drive home the need for a globally funded insurance pool to aid in the recovery from such events when they attend climate-change talks in Paris later this year. Ian Fry, the chief climate-change negotiator for the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, said the establishment of a permanent fund to help countries cope with the impact of climate-related disasters and other "slow-onset events", such as rising sea levels, was a key goal for negotiations in Paris. Reuters via The Sydney Morning Herald 

Poll: Scots want more wind power 
More Scots support wind power than ever before, with a new poll commissioned by Scottish Renewables finding support has risen as more turbines have been built. Over 70% of the 1,003 adults surveyed by YouGov said they supported the continued development of wind power as part of our energy mix, compared to 64% in February 2013. BusinessGreen 

Coal bust may be behind stall in carbon emissions 
Last week, notes Pearce, we learned that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels failed to rise in 2014 - the first time that has happened without an economic downturn. Now we know why, he says, citing a new report by CoalSwarm (which was also covered by CarbonBrief). The amount of coal-fired power generating capacity is still increasing, but the rate of increase is down from a peak of 6.9% to 2.7% in 2013. But Pearce adds a cautionary note, saying that, if we are to meet the global goal of limiting temperature rise to two degrees, carbon emissions must fall by 2.5% a year from now on to reach that target. New Scientist 

Scientists use same method as heart surgeons to reveal more about climate change 
Hidden patterns of climate change have been revealed by scientists using a method more normally used to diagnose heart disease. The scientists used multiscale entropy analysis to measure the "pulse of the planet" in an attempt to look for subtle changes in temperature on Earth. Researchers at the University of Leicester found that the climate appears to have become less regular recently when temperatures are examined on times-scales of longer than 12 months. Mail Online 

Enel pledges to tackle climate change 
Enel, Italy's largest utility, has pledged to phase out new investments in coal and "lead the charge among global energy companies for a global climate pact this year", according to the FT. "This is potentially one of the most significant game-changing achievements that our colleagues at Greenpeace Italy have delivered for the world," said Kumi Naidoo, the international executive director at Greenpeace, who praised the Italian company as a "first mover" in the sector.  Financial Times 

UK carbon capture industry 'feasible and affordable', study finds 
Up to 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide could be trapped from industry and power stations in the UK, cutting the cost of meeting climate targets and safeguarding jobs, according to a new report by the Energy Technologies Institute. A large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) industry is both "feasible and affordable" in the UK, it concludes. However, failing to deploy CCS at all could double the annual cost of carbon abatement by 2050 from 1% of GDP to 2%.  BusinessGreen 

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Farming Africa’s wet savannahs would have a high climate cost, study warns

  • 17 Mar 2015, 14:10
  • Robert McSweeney

Irrigation in Zambia | Lyndon Estes

As the global population rises, some scientists have suggested that Africa's wet savannahs could be ideal for growing the extra crops needed to meet the growing demand for food and bioenergy.

But it isn't quite the solution it seems, according to new research. The idea that Africa can provide food and biofuels while keeping emissions low "does not add up", the researchers say.

The wet savannah

'Wet savannah' describes warm, tropical areas areas that are wet enough to support crops and aren't covered with dense forest. Africa is home to around half of the world's wet savannah. Much of it is found in the Guinea Savannah, which makes up around a third of sub-Saharan Africa

Searchinger Et Al (2015) Fig1

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Daily Briefing | Media discuss the links between Cyclone Pam and climate change

  • 17 Mar 2015, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Cyclone Pam: Did climate change cause Vanuatu damage? 
The BBC is one of many outlets asking if climate change caused (or contributed to) Cyclone Pam, without finding a clear answer. Carbon Brief also tried to untangle the question. A range of scientists tellThe Guardian climate change is aggravating storm damage. The paper carries a comment from UN grandees Mary Robinson and Gro Harlem Brundtland on the human costs of climate change. Reuterssays Pacific nations plan to highlight Cyclone Pam at climate talks while RTCC reports comments from French foreign minister Laurent Fabius that most natural disasters are now linked to climate change. BBC News 

Climate and energy news

The argument for divesting from fossil fuels is becoming an overwhelming one 
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger explains why his paper has launched a campaign asking the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust to take their money out of fossil fuels. A Q&A explains the details of the campaign. The paper also reports on Oxford University's deferral of a decision on divestment and has a comment from Oxford graduate Jeremy Leggett on why he promises to hand back his degree if his alma mata fails to divest. Finally it reports on Norway's sovereign wealth fund dropping 50 coal firms, but increasing investments in other coal companies. The Guardian 

Riding the waves: The challenge of harnessing ocean power 
New technologies mean the wave and tidal energy sector could be set to grow, says the BBC's Richard Anderson. He looks at eight ideas being tested off Orkney, including seabed-tethered kites that can 'fly' on ocean currents. Global ocean energy capacity stands at just 0.5 gigawatts, Anderson notes, a fraction of the 400 gigawatts for wind power. BBC News 

Climate politics waters down UN disaster risk deal 
A draft international framework designed to reduce the risks of natural disasters is being weakened, reports RTCC. The deal, designed to replace an existing one that expires this year, is being negotiated in Sendai, Japan this week. Targets for 2030 in the framework now mostly lack specific numbers, using subjective language instead, RTCC says. RTCC

Climate and energy comment

Shell's climate change strategy: narcissistic, paranoid, and psychopathic 
The choices of this generation of oil bosses will be "decisive... for the eventual success or failure of our response to climate change", writes former diplomat John Ashton in an open letter to Shell chief Ben van Beurden. The letter responds to a recent van Beurden speech, calling it a "mask" covering a "manifesto for the oil and gas status quo" with shades of "narcissim", "paranoia" and "psycopathy". John Ashton, RTCC 

Climate Politics: Does the IPCC Have a Future? 
The debate on climate change has shifted from a scientific one 40 years ago to a very political one today, says climate scientist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) retains an "essential mandate" despite that shift, says van Ypersele. He is hoping to succeed former IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri. Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, The Guardian 

How significant is news that CO2 energy emissions stalled in 2014? 
The significance of a pause in global carbon emission increases cannot be overstated, says Richard Black, as it shows it's possible to grow the economy without growing emissions. But stabilising emissions isn't enough to secure a two degrees world, Black writes. World Bank climate envoy Rachel Kyte also says the news shows growth is possible while cutting emissions, Bloomberg reportsRichard Black, RTCC

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Cyclone Pam: Untangling the complex science on tropical storms and climate change

  • 16 Mar 2015, 20:30
  • Roz Pidcock

Winds of up to 300 kilometres per hour tore through the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu over the weekend, hitting the heavily populated capital of Port Vila on Saturday morning.

Aid agencies say Cyclone Pam could be one of the worst disasters ever to hit the region, the BBC reports. The death toll currently stands at eight and is expected to rise as rescuers reach the more remote islands.

Speaking at a disaster preparedness conference in Japan, Vanuatu's President Baldwin Lonsdale said he thought climate change was contributing to the rise in extreme weather.

With aid finally reaching the storm-stricken nation, Carbon Brief looks at how climate change is altering how often this part of the world bears the brunt of such a destructive force.

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 At 18.58.16

Wind speed in Cyclone Pam at 1900 GMT on 16th March 2015. Winds of more than 200 km per hour (red) are still being recorded as the cyclone continues its path from Vanuatu down the east coast of New Zealand. Images courtesy of Cameron Beccario via

Storm severity

A cyclone is a tropical storm. Tropical storms are given different names depending on which ocean they form in. They are called hurricanes in the north Atlantic and northeast Pacific, typhoons in the northwest Pacific, and cyclones in the Indian Ocean.

Vanuatu frequently experiences cyclones. The cyclone season runs from December to April when the weather in the region is hot and wet. Tropical storms  derive energy from the warmth of the ocean and convert it into wind strength.

While strong storms aren't unusual for the region, Cyclone Pam was exceptional. Prof Kevin Trenberth, expert in climate change and extreme weather at the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research, tells Carbon Brief:

"In the large area around Vanuatu the sea surface temperatures were one to two degrees Celsius above normal … So the atmosphere all around there has some 10 to 20% more moisture in it than a comparable storm in the 1970s would have had."

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