Politicians in this country often refer to the UK as a climate leader and, for many reasons, they’re right. We were one of the first countries to talk about climate change on the global stage, the first major economy to put climate targets into law, we lead the world on offshore wind development and can point with pride to the fact that emissions are half what they were in 1990, effectively decoupling emissions from economic growth.
But the usual measure of a country’s climate impact – annual greenhouse gas emissions from domestic territory – isn’t the only way of looking at things. Another metric, not currently factored into climate targets, is to add up the collective carbon footprint of individuals in a country, capturing all the greenhouse emissions associated with the goods and services they consume. These are known as consumption emissions and, although data on them is more sparse, this approach paints quite a different picture, as a new Green Alliance report shows.
The UK imports carbon from abroad
Look at it this way and the UK now appears to be an importer of carbon, with a footprint 50 per cent bigger than its domestically produced emissions. Other countries, like China and India, are net exporters. Their production of goods and services for us and others means their greenhouse gas emissions are higher than they would be if they were just meeting the needs of their own citizens.
There’s nothing wrong with trading emissions like this. Resources aren’t evenly distributed across the world and we all benefit from open trade in goods and services. But, if the UK wants to maintain its reputation as a climate leader, it would do well to pay attention to the hidden emissions embedded in all products, those produced domestically plus those making their way across our borders.
When the Environmental Audit Committee looked at the construction sector recently, it found climate policy to be focused almost entirely on running buildings, ensuring for instance that heating was low carbon, with no attention at all paid to the emissions embedded in building materials or construction and renovation processes. That’s despite these totalling 40 to 50 million tonnes of CO2 a year, which is more emissions than the high carbon aviation and shipping sectors combined.
It’s time to start tracking consumption emissions
It is no surprise then that the UK’s consumption emissions, largely ignored in other sectors too, have fallen much more slowly since 1990 than more closely tracked domestic emissions, with the latest data showing only a 29 per cent fall.
Being unwittingly reliant on high carbon production in other countries has an opportunity cost. Policies that, for instance, track the emissions embodied in construction, can encourage UK firms to innovate and develop new lower carbon products and services. With better knowledge of where the weak points are in supply chains and about the more efficient use of materials, there would be greater economic resilience against future resource shocks. If electric vehicle batteries are recycled, for instance, the UK could reduce reliance on imports from Russia and China. If steel is used more efficiently, and reused and recycled, less iron ore is needed. These practices also protect the country against the impacts of sudden crackdowns on high carbon activities abroad.
This is a good case for starting to track consumption emissions more consistently, using that as the lens through which to develop stronger policies that will help the economy overall.
As approaches vary internationally, the UK could also help to start a global conversation about appropriate standards for calculating consumption emissions. And it should start to scrutinise prospective trade deals to ensure they don’t impede the UK’s domestic and consumption climate targets and speed up ecodesign policies. An easy early win on this would be to apply the same footprinting requirements for new building developments across the country that are already changing markets in London.
Looking at consumption emissions isn’t a new idea, but it seems more timely than ever in a world of supply chain uncertainty, and where the UK is striking new trade deals on its own terms. It’s a challenge we should embrace as a country, especially so we can continue to claim leadership in the world on climate issues.