The UK's True Carbon Emissions

Climate-change deniers and the UK government like to claim that "UK greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 42% since 1990".

This statistic deliberately ignores CO2 emissions generated by flights, shipping and the manufacture of imported goods, which are all rising. This misleading measure is referred to as Territorial Emissions. All signatories to the Kyoto Protocol, such as the UK, are legally obliged to report them.

The truth is that between 1997 and 2016 our CO2 emissions fell by around 7%, from 850 to 784 MtCO2e.

Without the contribution from the retirement of coal-fired power generation and the increase in generation from wind and solar (a reduction of 69 MtCO2e) there would have been no fall in emissions.

This more honest account is referred to as our Consumption Emissions. These have been estimated by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) since 1997. The chart above comes from the Committee on Climate Change's report Reducing UK emissions 2019 - Progress Report to Parliament - July 2019.

Notes:
  • The consumption-emission statistics are classified as "experimental" due to inherent uncertainties. They are also produced with a longer lag (the latest year is 2016) given the detailed modelling of global supply chains which is required.
  • While the amount of goods consumed in the UK is well known from official Government statistics on imports and exports, the total emissions associated with producing UK imports is much harder to determine: it depends on estimates of how commodities are produced in all of the countries that the UK imports from, either directly or via intermediaries, and the emissions associated with each part of those supply chains.
  • The UK's consumption emissions were estimated at 784 MtCO2e in 2016, around 56% higher than territorial emissions (including international aviation and shipping) of 503 MtCO2e. The difference is primarily due to international trade: the production overseas of goods that are imported into the UK releases more emissions (355 MtCO2e) than the production of goods within the UK that are exported (121 MtCO2e).
  • In theory the difference between imported and exported emissions (234 MtCO2e) should be the same as the difference between the total consumption and territorial estimates (281 MtCO2e). However, the different approaches used in the two estimates mean that they make different assessments of the emissions resulting from UK production for UK consumption. This highlights the inherent uncertainty in the estimates.


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