The Truth is Over There

Statistics and link to DEFRA Final Report Updated in March 2013

Anybody who has heard me in the last two or three years will know that I regularly discuss the reality behind the headline reductions in UK carbon emissions. Official statistics for UK domestic emissions are not what they appear to be, as they don’t account for carbon emissions embedded within goods and services imported into the UK. However this week (March 2012) I was truly shocked by a new statistics release which finally discloses the magnitude of our offshore emissions.

For the last few years we in the UK (particularly our politicians) have been applauding ourselves for achieving a substantial reduction in carbon emissions. In 2009 a steep drop meant that we were emitting nearly 20% less than in 1990, the emissions baseline year. However when you break the figures down these reveal that more than half the domestic emissions reduction is due to the decline in economic activity after 2007 and a further 6% to 7% reduction occurred before 1997, the date of the Kyoto summit.

Thus a decade of policy and financial incentives have really only reduced UK domestic carbon emissions by around 3% to 4%. The vast majority of the emissions reduction was achieved due to recession and the closure of UK manufacturing industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before carbon was even on the political agenda. Since then of course we have been importing goods and services which were previously responsible for carbon emissions in the UK.

So far, old news. In March 2012 new research was published by DEFRA accounting for the carbon emissions that we have exported offshore as a result of importing services and manufactured goods. The final report on the UK’s Carbon Footprint 1993-2012, with slightly amended statistics, was published by DEFRA on 13th December 2012.

This work, by Leeds University & The Centre for Sustainability Accounting, shows that, far from reducing our overall carbon footprint, it had actually increased by around 25% (5 year average 2003-2008) before falling back sharply in 2009 as the recession bit. In 2010 emissions bounced back a little, ending 9% up on 1993 (note not the 1990 baseline year). Other statistics that I have analysed indicate a drop in domestic emissions between 1990 and 1993 of around 6%, but as the graph below indicates, whilst domestic emissions were showing an downward trend over this period, overall our footprint was rising as a result of imports. Extrapolating the figures back to 1990 indicates that the overall UK footprint might be as much as 15.9% higher than the 1990 baseline in 2010.

UK Carbon Footprint 1993-2012

UK Carbon Footprint 1993-2012 (DEFRA)

However, the December 2012 final report also contains data for the overall greenhouse gas emissions in addition to the pure carbon emissions data. This shows very much the same picture, but the outcome is now a rise of around 16.5% on the 1990 baseline. It is sobering to note however the magnitude of the overall footprint. Averaged over the period, 30% of greenhouse gas emissions have come from sources other than carbon dioxide.

UK GHG Footprint 1993-2010  (DEFRA)

UK GHG Footprint 1993-2010 (DEFRA)

Sustainability is and always has been a global issue; we cannot continue to sit on our own patch of ground looking no further than our garden fence. How can we claim political supremacy in sustainability if our assessments are based on the false presumptions of carbon offsetting, trading or offshoring. The UK may be able to pat itself on the back for achieving our Kyoto target domestically, but that is meaningless when we look at our true global impact. Manipulation of figures is for accountants or economists: the only way to reduce carbon emissions is to reduce our consumption of energy and resources.

By the Skin of Their Teeth

I’m a big fan of unintended consequences, particularly when they arise due to hasty, ill-considered carbon policy. Well, thank goodness that the coalition has woken up to the unintended consequence of the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC). Now that they have revised the scheme I can talk about it freely without letting the cat out of the bag.

Prior to the Comprehensive Spending Review, the CRC would have raised money by charging large businesses for emitting carbon and used the money to reward those that cut their emissions year on year. The scheme started in April with a measurement year to establish a baseline against which future reductions would be rewarded. The blindingly obvious consequence of this is that anyone who wanted to benefit from the CRC would consume as much energy as they possibly could in the measurement year, so that they could then progressively turn their lights off and get the cash reward whilst still emitting more carbon than before the scheme was introduced (call me an old cynic!)

Fortunately, the Coalition has announced that it is now going to keep all the money raised, so the CRC has simply become a Carbon Tax. This will cost millions and has been dropped on the business community with no prior warning, so I can’t see it lasting for long, but at least there is no longer a financial incentive to emit even more carbon than business as usual.

Hoorah For Car Scrappage

The news this week headlined with the end of the Government’s car scrappage scheme. The scheme was set up to prop up the motor industry, and has been very successful at doing so. However, this policy has also been justified by citing the carbon abatement potential of replacing old cars.

BIS said that over 330,000 new cars were purchased under the scheme with average carbon dioxide emissions of 133 g/km, a 27% saving over the emissions of the cars scrapped. That suggests that the average saving from the exchange is 49.2 g/km.

If each of the cars is driven 16,000 km per year then the total reduction in annual carbon dioxide emissions will be just over 260,000 tonnes. An impressive headline figure; but at what cost has this been achieved?

Each new car was subsidised to the tune of £2,000, divided equally between the taxpayer and the motor industry, at a total cost in excess of £660 million. The same investment in renewable energy would yield carbon dioxide reductions of around 3 million tonnes each year.

Furthermore, it has been estimated that more than half of the cars scrapped under the scheme would have been replaced within the next few years anyway. Lets assume that in 10 years all of the scrapped cars would have been off the road in any case. This puts the cost of carbon dioxide abatement from scrappage at over £450 per tonne, 10 times the cost per tonne of carbon capture and storage.

The scrappage scheme did succeed in protecting 4000 jobs and so achieved its primary objective (at public subsidy of £82,500 per job). So hoorah for the scrappage scheme, but it is totally unjustified to celebrate its success on the basis of carbon dioxide abatement.