Updated: Rising imports see UK GHGs jump 10%

25th April 2013

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The UK's carbon footprint has grown by at least 10% over the past 20 years, as emissions associated with imported goods have outstripped domestic CO2 savings

A new report from the committee on climate change (CCC) reveals that, although greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions produced in the UK have fallen by 19% since 1993, those generated overseas to make products and services consumed here have increased by 40%.

Its latest examination of the UK’s carbon footprint and the impacts of policies intended to drive emissions reductions, the CCC confirms that the UK is one of the largest net importers of carbon in the world and that a global climate agreement is “essential” to meet its legally-binding carbon targets.

“Clearly we need to reduce imported emissions,” said David Kennedy, chief executive at the CCC. “This [report] highlights the fundamental need to reduce global emissions in order to achieve climate objectives, and to do this through a new global deal.”

The report concludes that international targets to cut global emissions will be the most effective way of limiting temperature rises to 2°C and will also help to cut the UK’s carbon footprint. Imposing taxes linked to products’ embodied carbon and setting legally-binding standards for the carbon-intensity of goods are highlighted as potential measures that could help to drive down global emissions.

While acknowledging that it would be impractical for the UK to replace production-based with consumption-based carbon in the carbon budgets, the CCC argues that consumption emissions should be monitored.

Reacting to the report, a Decc spokesperson said: “We are already working closely with the CCC to determine how we might, in the future, take better account of consumption-based emissions in the policymaking process.

“The urgency of tackling climate change is clear and the UK government is committed to playing a central role at home and abroad. We are working hard to secure international agreement on an ambitious and legally binding global deal in 2015.”

Reducing emissions produced in the UK must also remain a key objective, the CCC maintains, and its analysis concludes that support from the government for energy-intensive sectors will ensure that low-carbon policies, such as the carbon reduction commitment energy efficiency scheme, will not harm their competitiveness over the coming decade.

“Competitiveness impacts associated with measures in the fourth carbon budget are small and can be addressed within levels of financial support already committed,” states the report.

“The UK has a relatively small manufacturing base, while industry emissions are relatively high in other countries, making it more challenging for these countries to meet targets. The UK should aim to meet the 2050 target largely through domestic emissions reduction and not through the purchase of expensive credits.”

The CCC’s report also examines the life-cycle emissions associated with low-carbon technologies and confirms that products such as electric vehicles and heat pumps offer significant emissions savings over conventional alternatives when using low-carbon electricity.

Nuclear and wind-powered generation are highlighted as offering high carbon emissions savings over their life time, but the CCC concludes that conventional power plants with carbon capture and storage technology should not form a mainstay of the UK’s electricity supply because of their high carbon output compared with wind and nuclear.

The CCC also says energy from biomass must meet “stringent sustainability criteria” to ensure carbon reductions and that shale gas may be a good substitute for imported gas, but it still warns against a “dash for gas”.

Dr Alan Knight, sustainability director at Business in the Community (BITC), said the report illustrates the need to revolutionise business models. “Businesses need to move away from incremental changes – such as cutting their carbon footprint by 4% – to asking if they have done enough in their business model to make it possible that by 2050 nine billion people on the planet will be enjoying high-quality lives,” he said.

According to Knight, businesses will need to increasingly focus on consumption trends. “A thriving one-planet economy needs new products and services, but also consumers’ lifestyles will need to change,” he said. “One of the conversations that businesses should be having with their customers is to help ensure their products are truly sustainable. A firm can sell certified sustainable fish, but if consumers buy three fish and throw two away, that’s still an unsustainable habit.”

During May, BITC is running its fourth annual “Be the Start” initiative, during which it will work with Marks & Spencer, IBM and others to promote more sustainable lifestyles. More details are available at bethestart.org.

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