Imports mask true carbon footprint of industrialised world

It may be obvious that a growing consumption of goods and services is likely to lead to an increase in carbon emissions, but an international study has now outlined exactly how that link works in the UK.

Researchers in York, Stockholm and Sydney have been working on a Defra- funded project which shows consumption-related CO2 rose by 115 million tonnes between 1992 and 2004.

The study provides an insight into the impacts of all the goods and services consumed by British households, including those emissions that occur in countries exporting to the UK, which are usually excluded from standard emissions analysis.

Because the figures take into account the impact of a country’s citizens beyond its own borders, it paints a truer picture of a nation’s real carbon footprint.

Measuring emissions on a consumption basis will produce different numbers for all economies than those reported on under the Kyoto Protocol. For the UK, for example, consumption emissions in 2004 were 37% higher than the UK Greenhouse Gas Inventory which is based on territorial emissions under UN rules.

Carbon dioxide emissions embedded in imports went up from 35% of UK emissions in 1992 to 67% in 2004, while those embedded in exports increased from 31% to 45% of emissions over the same period.

This suggests that while the UK has made progress in reducing its own carbon dioxide emissions, these reductions have been offset by increased emissions in other countries through the consumption of imported goods and services.

Trade data also indicates an increasing dominance of emissions embedded in UK imports from newly emerging economies such as China, India and Russia.

Dr Tommy Wiedmann from Stockholm Environment Institute, who led the study, said: “Accounting for emissions from a consumption perspective provides insight into the global impacts of local consumption. It gives support for the view that in an increasingly globalised market all economies need to play their part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Sam Bond

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