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Government should be open about 'outsourced emissions' according to Committee

18 April 2012

The Government should be straightforward  about the impact that UK consumption is having on the world's climate, according to a report from the Energy and Climate Change Committee

The MPs warn that: 

  • UK's record on cutting greenhouse gases is not as good as DECC figures suggest
  • Carbon dioxide emissions from imported goods consumed in the UK are going up faster than Government is cutting CO2 at home 
  • Government figures on consumption-based emissions - from imported goods - show that carbon dioxide emissions in 2009 were 20% higher than in 1990.

Tim Yeo MP, Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, said:

"Successive governments have claimed to be cutting climate-changing emissions, but in fact a lot of pollution has simply been outsourced overseas.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change likes to argue that the UK is only responsible for 2% of the world's CO2 emissions, but the Government’s own research shows this not to be the case.
We get through more consumer goods than ever before in the UK and this is pushing up emissions in manufacturing countries like China."

The Department for Energy and Climate Change's (DECC) official CO2 figures - that count territorial emissions from power stations and transport, etc, within UK borders - show nearly  20% reduction between 1990–2009. But research commissioned by the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reveals that CO2 emissions were 20% higher in 2009 if consumption based emissions -  from imported goods - are included.

The fall in territorial emissions was not mainly the  consequence of the Government's climate policy, according to the report. Rather it was the result of the shift in manufacturing industries away from the UK and the switch from coal to gas-fired electricity generation that began in the early 1990s. Since 1990 carbon dioxide emissions from imports have almost doubled (from 166 million tonnes (Mt) CO2 to 331 Mt CO2 in 2009).

If the UK wishes to encourage emissions reductions in countries that manufacture and export goods to the UK, the MPs say the Government should recognise the growth in the UK's consumption-based emissions.  Acknowledging  that UK consumption is driving up territorial emissions in other countries could increase the UK's leverage over those emissions and help to secure a binding global agreement on carbon cuts.

Tim Yeo MP added:

"The UK can scarcely lecture countries like China for failing to sign up to binding emissions cuts when much of their pollution is produced making products for us and other high-consumption economies.
We are not saying that consumption emissions should form the basis of a new global climate treaty, but a more honest approach about our contribution to rising CO2 levels could help to break the stalemate."

The report concludes that the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) should no longer rely exclusively on territorial emissions as its primary policy driver. There is sufficiently robust data available to develop new policy options and identify carbon-intensive behaviours that are overlooked by concentrating on territorial emissions alone. Ministers should explore the options for incorporating consumption-based emissions data in to the policy making process and setting emissions targets on a consumption-basis at the national level.

Tim Yeo MP said:

"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.
The Government should commission the Committee on Climate Change to examine how the UK could incorporate consumption emissions accounting into our climate change policy.
Better information on the emissions embedded in products could also  encourage individuals and businesses to reduce their own carbon footprint."

DECC has claimed that it would be too difficult to count consumption - based emissions. However, the MPs argue that the Government should not use the uncertainties inherent to consumption-based emissions data as an excuse for inaction. The MPs point out that several local authorities are already using consumption data to inform policy making and researchers for DEFRA have calculated the UK's consumption impact with only small margin of uncertainty. The independent Committee on Climate Change - set up to advise the Government on its carbon budgets - has told the MPs that it would welcome the opportunity to explore the implications that consumption-based emissions accounting might have for the UK's carbon budgets, and that it could undertake such work after it publishes its fourth progress report on the carbon budget in June 2012.


Comparison of DECC's Territorial Emissions and Defra's Consumption Emissions for both CO2 and all Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) 1990–2009.


DECC (Territorial)

1990    2009     Change (%)

Defra (Consumption)

1990    2009  Change (%)

CO2(Mt) 590      474       -20 613      736    20
GHGs (MtCO2e) 781.6   563.6    -28 851      954    12
  • Source: DEFRA (March 2012)
  • Source DECC (March 2011)
  • Since 1990 carbon dioxide emissions relating to imports doubled, while the emissions relating to the consumption of goods and services produced in the UK decreased by 10 per cent. (DEFRA)
  • CO2 emissions associated with imported goods and services accounted for around a quarter of the carbon dioxide footprint in 1990 (166 million tonnes (Mt) CO2, 27 per cent); by 2009 their share had increased to just under half (331 Mt CO2, 45 per cent). (DEFRA)
  • The Kyoto protocol as it stands was designed at a time when international flows of carbon were much smaller: emissions embedded in trade grew from 4.3GtCO2 in 1990 to 7.8GtCO2 in 2008. (ECC Committee)
  • Emissions embedded in imports used by businesses for UK consumption more than doubled, and emissions associated with the production of imports used directly by UK consumers increased by nearly 80 per cent. (DEFRA)
  • The UK's total carbon equivalent footprint - including the other greenhouse gases - has increased by about 12 per cent between 1990 and 2009. (DEFRA)
  • Source: DEFRA (March 2012)

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