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No cause for complacency. The UK’s carbon footprint is a lot larger than it seems

ImageWe import a whole array of consumer products from the booming economies of India and China. In return, we have successfully exported our manufacturing emissions so distorting the real impact of our economy

The leaders of the big industrial nations are agreed. By 2050 emissions of carbon dioxide must be 50% lower than in 2050, promise the G8 leaders meeting this summer in Japan.

To achieve this, each of us in the developed world – government, corporation, private individual – must shrink our carbon footprint. It is obvious what that means for the last two sectors. You and I, together with the entities we work for, must reduce our consumption of energy and carbon intensive goods and activities. That much we understand. And can measure.

But what about nation states? How do they measure progress towards this agreed goal? The answer is: in a rather different way. So far as any government is concerned, the simplest way to calculate is to look at the nation’s GDP. And then divide it by the amount of carbon based fuel used, and other emissions, to realise this wealth.

Not only is this the simplest way of monitoring progress towards a low carbon future, it is also the conventionally accepted way in which the international league tables on progress are drawn up.

Impact of goods imported

But it is also fundamentally, profoundly, misleading. Because it omits entirely to incorporate any recognition for the climate impact of goods imported into this country. By doing so, it entirely distorts the picture regarding progress. Or, most pertinently, the absence of it.

Let me take a specific example. A generation ago, practically all television sets watched in the UK were made here. Now almost all are imported from Asia. Granted, from the time the sets are plugged in and working in our homes, the electricity they consume is scored against our national – as well as personal – carbon footprint.

But that ignores one utterly critical dimension. That television has been manufactured in an Asian country, and that country has therefore had the carbon implications of that process scored against it. But the only reason it has been made is because of the demand created by us here in the UK.

There has been much publicity about the undeniable fact that gross carbon emissions from China are now higher than those from the USA. For several years, they have dwarfed those scored against us here in Europe. There is one main reason why these have soared. We have effectively exported our manufacturing emissions.

This July, to its considerable credit, the environment department DEFRA published a ground-breaking study. Prepared by the highly respected Stockholm Environment Institute, it set out to identify the additional carbon emissions created by goods and services imported into the UK. These include the international transport costs, which the existing Kyoto Treaty leaves wholly unallocated on any nation’s carbon account book.

The study measured the period between 1992 and 2004. According to conventional estimates, the carbon emissions from the UK economy remained just about static, even dropped a little in the initial years. Put together with the closure of most of the indigenous coal mines between 1990 and 1992, it has permitted our government ministers to be in pole position to “strut their stuff” at international climate change meetings, confident that our own part of the Kyoto Treaty was being met.

Carbon dioxide emissions on the rise

However, if you factor in the implications of imports, a very different picture emerges. As environment secretary Hilary Benn concedes: “Taking imports, exports and international transport into account, overall carbon dioxide emissions associated with UK consumption of goods and services increased by 18% between 1992 and 2004.”

On the same day this study was released, I happened to be attending a joint informal meeting of environment and energy ministers from the 27 European Union countries. I was invited by the French presidency to intervene in a debate on climate change, staged for the ministers.

Speaking just before me was the Czech MEP Miroslav Ouzky, who chairs the European Parliament’s environment committee. He was drawing attention to the enormous growth in carbon emissions from Asia. This led him to question the wisdom of European counties setting very ambitious unilateral reduction targets for the next decade.

In conventional carbon accounting terms, Dr Ouzky is correct to urge caution. But he does forget two very key factors. Even if all the emission growth in China and India and other Asian economies is considerable, on a per capita basis overall levels are still a fraction of those emitted in all G8 and other developed nations.

Even more significantly, only a portion of that growth is directly enjoyed by Asian citizens themselves. As we have seen, an increasing amount of the UK’s real carbon footprint is still being credited to nations thousands of miles away. Effectively we have exported our true consumption and emission figures.

As Hilary Benn says, “we must help business and individuals to understand and reduce the environmental impacts of the products and services they produce, sell or consume. Wherever in the world they are made.” Amen to that.

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