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International roaming of the UK carbon footprint


According to the Times and the Guardian, a new study led by economist Deiter Helm of Oxford finds that the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have actually risen 19% above 1990 levels, not fallen 15% as officially reported to the UN. The discrepancy comes from the official figures’ neglect of emissions from aviation, shipping, overseas trade and tourism, and undermines Britain’s image as a world leader in greening its economy.

The study itself (PDF), though, doesn’t so much expose hypocrisy as highlight a tough methodological question: should we measure greenhouse gas produced within each country, or should we look at fossil fuel consumption? The UNFCCC required the UK to report only greenhouse gasses emitted within its borders, which have decreased in part because domestic manufacturing in the UK has given way to more imports. The finding of a 19% emissions rise comes from flipping that viewpoint to count emissions associated with goods consumed in the UK, no matter where they are manufactured, as well as the impacts of international aviation and shipping and of UK citizens travelling abroad. Call it international roaming of the country’s carbon footprint.

The fact that emissions from international aviation and shipping aren’t being counted in anybody’s carbon budget at the moment is clearly a problem, and one that may not go away anytime soon — the aviation industry has vowed to fight against joining the EU carbon-trading scheme.

And if British consumers are effectively outsourcing their greenhouse gas production by buying iPods made in China, where ‘production’ emissions have been rising, it does the planet no good. Unfortunately, the study takes the tactic of thinking globally but blaming locally. To really understand what consumption-based emissions numbers imply about how to grow a low-carbon economy, don’t we need to see the equivalent figures from China – and everywhere else?

Photo: Getty

Anna Barnett


  1. Report this comment

    May said:

    I completely agree that we should examine emissions problems in as holistic view as possible… isn’t that what sustainability is all about? It’s discouraging to hear that the UK has been “cheating” a little on emissions standards though.

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