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Tim Dodd

24.04.2013 | 3:30pm
ScienceCommittee on Climate Change: UK imports drive up emissions
SCIENCE | April 24. 2013. 15:30
Committee on Climate Change: UK imports drive up emissions

Contrary to official claims, the UK has one of the largest carbon footprints in the world, according to a new report – and the country’s appetite for consumer products is driving emissions up further. The report also highlights that carbon capture technology might not be as green as first thought and highlights the possibility that shale gas might lower power sector emissions.

Official statistics indicate that the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen over the last twenty years – partly because it now produces more electricity from gas than coal. But a new  report from government adviser the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) finds that once imports and exports are taken into account, the country’s emissions are 80 per cent higher.

Importing emissions

Between 1993 and 2008 the UK population increased by six per cent. But the economy, measured through GDP, grew by a half – and the amount of goods and services imported into the country grew by a startling 90 per cent.

And emissions associated with manufacturing, transporting and consuming those products grew:

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 At 10.18.24Production emissions are emissions from burning fuel or transporting vehicles in the UK. Consumption emissions is a measure of all of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing, transporting and consuming goods and services used in this country, wherever they originate.

In fact, emissions ’embedded’ in products imported to the UK rose by 40 per cent between 1993 and 2010:

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 At 12.44.05

The UK has a relatively small manufacturing sector – so it imports more manufactured goods, complete with embedded emissions. In fact, it is one of the largest net importers of carbon in the world:

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 At 10.22.42

Will consumption emissions keep going up?

Blogger Chris Goodall recently pointed out that Defra’s statistics show the UK’s consumption emissions began declining in 2004 and fell sharply in 2008 following the economic downturn.

But it’s debatable whether this is a long-term trend. Professor John Barrett, one of the lead researchers behind the CCC’s data, says that emissions could start to rise again in the future if consumption continues to increase. Barrett says that the lag in emissions growth before 2008 was due to efficiency gains overseas. But the more efficient overseas producers get, the more marginal gains in efficiency will become because all of the easiest improvements have already been made. 

He tells Carbon Brief:

“We won’t necessarily see stable emissions in the future if consumption continues to rise”.

Emissions embedded in UK imports could be nine times higher than emissions produced inside the country by 2050, the CCC predicts. It says overall, the UK needs to reduce its carbon footprint by 70 per cent between now and 2050 if it is to play its part in avoiding dangerous climate change.

Different technologies

Taking a wider view doesn’t just mean looking at emissions associated with consumer products. The CCC’s report also looks at the ‘lifecycle emissions’ of different technologies used to generate power:

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 At 10.30.08

This analysis takes into account emissions associated with mining, transporting materials and putting infrastructure in place as well as burning fuel for power. It turns out that carbon capture and storage technology – considered essential for helping the UK cut emissions from fossil fuels – has high lifecycle emissions. The CCC says it should only be used as part of a portfolio approach – together with nuclear and renewables – as way of reducing emissions.

Shale gas no change

Some media coverage of the CCC report emphasises its finding that UK-produced shale gas may have lower emissions than gas imported from overseas, concluding that indigenous shale gas “may have a useful role to play” in the UK energy system.

But while the CCC hasn’t looked in detail at what meeting this demand from UK-produced shale gas could mean. The CCC has repeatedly argued that gas only has a limited role to play in the electricity system after 2030 if the UK is to meet its emissions reduction targets.

Measuring but not including consumption emissions

Some campaign groups are also aiming to raise the question of consumption emissions – and the CCC says it is of “crucial importance” that the UK addresses the question.

But CCC says that the current accounting system for carbon emissions is appropriate, arguing that it would be “disruptive and impractical” to try to include consumption emissions in the targets of the Climate Change Act. 

UPDATE 25 April 3pm: Some changes were made to the section on consumption emissions to clarify Professor Barrett's comments and the reference to Chris Goodall's blog. 

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