UK's carbon footprint rises 3%, what happens next?

New figures published by Defra have revealed that the UK's carbon footprint grew by 3% between 2012 and 2013. With ambitious international and national carbon reduction targets now in place to enshrine low-carbon actions into law, is this a mere blip on the radar, or does the UK need radicalise its approach to emission goals?

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), just under 9% of the UK’s imports arrived from China in 2013

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), just under 9% of the UK’s imports arrived from China in 2013

Defra's UK carbon footprint statistics, released with help from researchers at the University of Leeds, vary from domestic emissions data in the sense that they account for emissions that occur during the consumption of goods and services.

Therefore, this data takes into account goods and services that aren’t necessarily supplied by the UK, but are imported to mix with the “territorial” goods and services that are on offer nationally. Herein lies the crux of the issue.

Despite emissions relating to the goods and services produced in the UK tumbling by 26% from a 1997 baseline, the overall carbon footprint increased by 3% in 2013, and by 2% the year prior. With emissions arising from households remaining steady at around 14% in this timeframe – although labelled as a contributing factor by Defra – the UK must look abroad to shrink its carbon footprint.   

According to the data, greenhouse gas emissions – which cover carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and fluorinated compounds (hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride) – relating to imports rose by 41% from 1997 to a peak in 2007. In 2013, import emissions were still 10% higher than the baseline level.

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), just under 9% of the UK’s imports arrived from China in 2013, while more than half of the imports were shipped from Europe. The top import origins were Germany ($100bn), China ($62.7bn), the Netherlands ($50.7bn) and the US ($44.4bn).

With the Defra data highlighting that emissions relating to EU imports have decreased by 24% in 2013 -  significantly lower than 1997 levels – it appears that the main emissions pool occurs when dealing with international trade.

Made in China

For 2013, emissions derived from China accounted for 11% of the UK’s carbon footprint, which is 5% higher than 1997 and currently account for 20% of the emissions associated with imports – a 9% increase against the baseline. In fact, emissions associated from China-based imports are currently 112% higher than 1997 levels.

With the OEC claiming that imports from China rose by 0.5% for 2014, and that UK imports have increased at an annualised rate of 6.2%, is there a need to concentrate on UK-based products and services?

The report released by Defra certainly suggests that this is an avenue worth exploring. A line from the data reads: “The larger reduction in territorial emissions may be due to the UK economy further moving from a manufacturing base to a service base with a greater dependence upon imports and their associated embedded emissions.”

Fortunately, China’s new position as a global leader on renewable capacity and its decision to suspend coal-powered plants is an encouraging step for the import market. But for the time-being China isn’t just having a negative impact on the UK’s carbon footprint, but also its carbon-intensive industries.

Cheap imports from China have already been cited as one of the driving factors behind the collapse of Tata Steel. While the industry is exploring low-carbon options to negate the economic impacts of an £18 carbon floor price, it isn't likely to become cost competitive with cheap imports for the time being.

Transport’s footprint

Obviously, the UK will have to depend on other countries for certain goods. But with UK-based industries struggling against a wave of imports, there is an opportunity to stimulate economic growth while lowering emissions.

Even if the UK did restructure its approach to manufacturing imports, it would then have to deal with the associated territorial carbon impacts. However, these might be easier to deal with as it negates the majority of shipping and transport emissions.

Defra notes that international aviation and shipping emissions are allocated to countries based on the operator of the vessel. While this makes it harder to allocate transport’s share of emissions – many data reports don’t account for international shipping and transport emissions – research from DECC does create an idea of the impact.

According to DECC, emissions from international aviation fuel use in 2013 were estimated at 32.2m tonnes of CO2e, which is just under half the emissions that domestic household heating measures account for.

Despite fuel use emissions falling by 0.6% the year prior, emissions in 2013 were still more than double the 1990 level. When you add emissions from UK international shipping bunkers, the total falls just short of the 40m tonnes mark.

With emissions from global aviation and maritime sectors set to rise by 250% by 2050 without an international standard, this future trajectory could soon leave its mark on the UK unless policy makers incentivise national manufacturing markets.

Home-grown emphasis

Statistics published by DECC have shown that UK-based emissions have fallen by 8% between 2013 and 2014, citing a growing renewables sector as a factor. With renewables now producing a quarter of the UK’s electricity generation, is now the time to fuel carbon-intensive industries with reliable low-carbon power?

The fall in UK-based emissions suggest that a move away from an import-heavy trading system could placate an increase in import-based emissions. China’s 11% share of the UK’s carbon footprint actually offset the lowering level of emissions from EU-based imports, which suggests that an increase in UK-based products at the expense of China and the Rest of the World wouldn’t do that much damage to the UK’s carbon footprint.

The UK is also in an economic position where it can afford to incentivise struggling manufacturing markets. Although the nation’s financial clout has been clouded somewhat by the recent Brexit vote, the UK is one of the 21 nations that has experienced a decoupling effect as emissions fall while GDP growth rises.

Ultimately, the 3% rise experienced in the UK could dissolve as global agreements such as the Paris Agreement force countries to act on climate and carbon targets. But with new Prime Minister Teresa May choosing to abolish DECC, there are concerns amongst the nation that the UK’s willingness to back low-carbon technology could be plagued by a business-first approach to the environment that concentrates too much on short-term costs.

Those views have been echoed by Schneider Electric’s international solutions director of energy and sustainability services Toby Crewe, who has called of a “collective, smarter approach” to eradicating the UK’s carbon footprint.

"Prime Minister Teresa May's recent decision to abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has done no favours for the industry,” Crewe said. “Now, more than ever, we need a collective, smarter approach to stamping out our carbon footprint. Continued investment in smarter, greener technologies can help make this vital step forward. As an example the reduction in the cost of renewable technologies is directly linked to the growth of organisations investing in this space as part of their commitments to tackling climate change.

“What’s important now, is that we maintain these results. In light of Brexit and the DECC dissolution, questions remain unanswered over the government’s climate change commitments. We must continue to hold focus on the renewable options readily available in the market and gain momentum away from fossil fuels. The UK will then be in the best position to promote green policies moving forward.”

Matt Mace


DECC | greenhouse gas emissions | UK carbon footprint | beis


Energy efficiency & low-carbon
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