UK must consider GHGs of imports

19th April 2012


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DECC's failure to consider the embodied carbon of imported goods in UK emissions reduction policy is short sighted and could lead to increased greenhouse gases (GHGs) globally, warns MPs

In its latest report, the energy and climate change committee (ECCC) warns that the energy department’s assertion that the UK is only responsible for 2% of the world’s GHG emissions is not a truthful representation of the country’s impact and continuing to use this assumption as the basis for policy decisions could lead to greater outsourcing of emissions.

In calculating the UK’s emissions output, DECC only considers GHGs created domestically, arguing that it would be too complex to include emissions generated overseas in creating products that are consumed here.

However, the environment department, Defra publishes estimates of emissions created by products and services consumed in the UK, revealing that, unlike DECC’s territorial emissions which dropped 19% between 1990 and 2009, consumption-based emissions have risen by 20% over the same time.

“Successive governments have claimed to be cutting climate-changing emissions, but in fact a lot of pollution has simply been outsourced overseas,” said ECCC chair Tim Yeo, presenting the report.

“We get through more consumer goods than ever before in the UK and this is pushing up emissions in manufacturing countries like China.”

In creating policy based only on territorial emissions, DECC is overlooking the growth in consumption-based emissions and potentially encouraging greater offshoring of emissions, states the report.

“Without a complete picture of the UK’s impact on the global climate, DECC runs the risk of designing energy and climate change policies that produce perverse unintended consequences,” argued Yeo.

The committee calls on DECC to move away from using only territorial emissions as a basis for policy development, refuting the energy department’s claim that there is a lack of sophisticated data to do so. It cites Scottish legislation, which requires the devolved government to report on GHG emissions produced outside of Scotland and examples of local authorities, including West Sussex County Council and Manchester City Council, that use consumption-based emissions to raise awareness of the global environmental impact of products.

It says that by not considering emissions related to consumption, DECC is missing opportunities to tackle negative consumer behaviour in this country and encourage more environmentally-friendly manufacturing overseas.

“Even if an increased emphasis on consumption-based emissions has no impact on the UK’s local emissions, the UK has to address its consumption if it is to make an effective contribution to a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” the ECCC report states.

The committee concedes, however, that consumption-based emissions figures cannot replace territorial emissions in international reduction negotiations.

The Carbon Trust, which presented evidence to the committee informing the report, hailed the conclusions as revolutionary.

“[The report] fundamentally redefines what the actual carbon footprint of the UK is,” said Simon Retallack, the Carbon Trust’s strategy manager. “This new way of looking at carbon, through the lens of overall consumption, wherever it originates from, should act as an eye opener for policy makers, companies and for us all as individuals working to reduce our carbon emissions.”

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