Figures produced by Leeds University and published by Defra today revealed that emissions associated with imports doubled between 1997 and 2012. Emissions from Chinese imports alone rose from 5% to 10% as a proportion of the UK’s carbon footprint.

By contrast C02 emissions from UK-based production fell by 19% in the same time-period.

The problem

Goods that are consumed within the UK but produced abroad are not included in the emissions reported to the UN. However these reporting standards could be changed at the UN climate conference in Paris, endangering the UK’s ability to meet its legally-binding 80% emissions reduction target by 2050.

To meet the 80% reduction target, the UK has a budget of 13 GT of CO2e to use between now and 2050. However, taking into account the fact that we are a net importer of emissions, this budget could reduce to 9 GT – a target the UK is currently unlikely to meet.

Professor John Barrett of the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, said: “The UK’s boasts of cutting carbon emissions are an illusion, because the carbon embedded in imports outweighs the savings at home.

“We need a major policy rethink and drastic action if we are to achieve the climate outcomes we say we’re targeting.” He added that domestic and consumption statistics for CO2 emissions should be published side-by-side.

Appropriate accounting

However, Lord Gummer, the chairman of the independent advisory Climate Change Committee, said current accounting methods were appropriate.

He told the BBC: “We have considered using total emission figures more widely, but that would mean emissions being double counted – once in China’s total and once in ours.

“More importantly, we have direct control over home-produced emissions. Manufacturing methods, carbon intensity, and energy distribution in China are outside our direct control.”

Writing on the Touchstone blog, TUC policy officer Philip Pearson suggested that the imported emissions could be cut by ‘reshoring’ manufacturing, as the UK was home to “some of the most efficient industries in the world”.

Brad Allen

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