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.

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