UK’s carbon footprint 21% below peak levels, latest Government figures show

Defra analysts broadly attribute this trend to the decarbonisation of energy used to manufacture products. Pictured: The Cottam Coal plant

Published late on Thursday (19 March) by the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Government’s latest carbon footprint report charts the nation’s consumption-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for 2017 and compares them to annual records dating back to 1997.

In order for GHG emissions to be classed as consumption-related, they much be either directly attributable to UK households; generated by the value chain of UK-produced goods and services used by UK residents; or embedded in the value chain of imported goods and services that were ultimately used in the UK.

The data reveals that the national carbon footprint stood at 772 million tonnes of CO2e in 2017, down 21% from the 2007 peak of 977 million tonnes and down 9% from 1997, when the current series of records began.

Defra analysts broadly attribute this trend to the decarbonisation of energy used to manufacture products; the ongoing shift to service-based models; and efficiency improvements.

On a shorter-term basis, the report also documents a 3% year-on-year reduction in the UK’s carbon footprint from 2016 to 2017. According to Defra, this is in line with the year-on-year trends throughout the rest of the decade and is largely the result in reduced domestic travel, and of the use of renewable electricity by UK manufacturers.

A closer look

As well as providing a broad overview, the report breaks down trends in emissions from each of the three sources classed as consumption-related.

Emissions generated by the value chain of UK-produced goods and services used by UK residents fell by almost one-third (31%) between 1997 and 2017, as businesses invested in energy efficiency, resource efficiency and renewable energy.

But emissions directly attributable to UK housing stagnated. Every year since 1997, they have stood at between 140 and 160 million tonnes of CO2e. While the UK’s housing stock has grown over this 20-year period, green groups including the Government’s own Committee on Climate Change (CCC) have repeatedly pointed out that policy action surrounding energy efficiency and low-carbon heat for homes has not been ambitious enough to meet key climate targets.

Emissions related to road transport directly linked to households also held steady, as expected. 68 million tonnes of CO2e was attributable to this source in 2017 – the same amount as in 2016, and down just three million tonnes from the 2007 peak.

The picture for emissions embedded in imports, meanwhile, is more complex. A slight decrease from 361 million tonnes of CO2e to 358 million tonnes of CO2e was recorded from 2016 to 2017. But 358 million tonnes is still almost one-fifth (18%) higher than 1997 levels.

Defra’s report attributes this long-term increase to a steady increase in emissions associated with imports from China. 61 million tonnes of CO2e was attributable to Chinese imports in 2017, up a staggering 260% on 1997 levels. This is to increased procurement of goods and services from China, compounded slow progress in decarbonising international transport and Chinese manufacturing – much of which is still dependent on coal.

Additionally, emissions related to imports from the EU and the rest of the world – excluding the US – were marginally higher in 2017 than in 1997.

Creative accounting?

As was the case when the UK’s original Climate Change Act was first introduced in 2008, the introduction of the 2050 net-zero target last year sparked a heated debate about exactly how the UK Government should calculate emissions – and which sources should fall within scope of its goals.

In tracking progress towards the 2050 target, Ministers confirmed last year, international shipping and aviation emissions will be excluded, as they have been since 2008. The approach stands in contrast to the recommendations of the CCC, school climate strikers and several prominent green groups, including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

Clarification as to whether embedded emissions will be included in the scope of the 2050 target is now awaited – particularly by those in sectors with high levels of embedded emissions, such as infrastructure and the built environment.

In the absence of such clarification, several corporates which either produce within, or sell into, the UK market, have set net-zero targets and strategies which exclude all or some Scope 3 (indirect) emissions. Among them are BP and Rio Tinto.

Sarah George

Comments (3)

  1. Sophie Churchill says:

    Thanks for the piece. Do think the exclusion of aviation should be a headline – domestic travel down seems surprising and encouraging but then you realise it s substituted by air mini breaks and foreign hols?

  2. Ian Byrne says:

    @Sophie Domestic travel is down or flat due to continuing improvements in efficiency (mpg) of cars and trucks, although this has levelled off over the past few years as it has been offset by a rise in the proportion of larger SUV-type private cars, as well as in the number local delivery vehicles with the move to online shopping. Private mileage has been more or less flat – miles driven per vehicle have dropped slightly, but have been offset by more cars on the road. Although more leisure trips by air have undoubtedly increased aviation emissions (more flights), I don’t believe that it has been directly responsible for the small drop in miles driven per vehicle – most people are taking additional breaks, rather than substituting Barcelona for Brighton.

  3. Ian Byrne says:

    As a statistical update to my last comment, analysis in the report shows that road transport emissions rose by 5% between 1997 and 2017. In the same period, the number of private cars registered with DVLA rose by 36.7% to 31.2 million. In contrast, the introduction of 5% bioethanol in petrol (and B7 biodiesel) will have had only a minor effect.

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