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Nearly half UK carbon footprint is from overseas emissions

Nearly half UK carbon footprint is from overseas emissions

Nearly half the UK’s carbon footprint comes from emissions released overseas to satisfy UK-based consumption, according to a new report.

Products including clothing, processed foods and electronics imported into the UK are counted as the manufacturing country’s emissions, not the UK’s - although they would not have been produced were it not for UK demand. 

These emissions account for 46% of the UK’s carbon footprint yet are not currently covered by national reporting or included in the UK’s net zero target. 

The report, Carbon Footprint: Exploring the UK’s contribution to climate change, was commissioned by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and highlights the importance of addressing carbon intensive imports such as animal feed and fossil fuels, which fuel our cars and heat our homes, and using the UK’s new trade policy to encourage the highest standards of environmental production abroad.

It is essential that the UK commits to reducing its emissions both inside and outside the UK to adequately respond to the climate crisis.

Professor John Barrett

One of the authors of the report, Professor John Barrett from Leeds' Sustainability Research Institute, said: "Over the past 30 years, the UK’s emissions associated with our consumption have only declined by 15% at a time when they need to reduce to close to zero in the next 30 years.

"Increasingly, the impact of our consumption occurs outside the UK, creating a situation where our emissions inside the country reduce while emissions associated with imports increase. 

"It is essential the UK commits to reducing its emissions both inside and outside the UK to adequately respond to the climate crisis."

Between 1990 and 2016, emissions within the UK’s borders reduced by 41% but the consumption-based footprint only dropped 15%, mainly due to goods and services coming from abroad.

The report found that six sectors contributed to almost half (46%) of the UK’s carbon footprint – a combination of domestic emissions and those from UK consumption emitted abroad: heating homes (9.7%), car fuel (8.6%), electricity (8%), construction (6.7%), agriculture (6.6%) and air travel (5.9%).  

Only the largest three of these are associated with sectors which are expected to fully decarbonise domestically by 2050 under the UK Committee on Climate Change’s pathway to decarbonisation.

We need to be honest about our emissions – that means tackling those in the goods and services we buy in, not just the ones we make here.

Dr Stephen Cornelius, WWF

Dr Stephen Cornelius, Chief Climate Change Adviser at WWF, said: "Climate change is a global problem that needs a global solution. The UK Government has committed to net zero emissions and a credible plan to achieve this is one that tackles emissions based on what we consume, as well as what we produce.

"We need to be honest about our emissions – that means tackling those in the goods and services we buy in, not just the ones we make here. 

"As an influential nation which has shown it can act as a global leader on climate change before, we have the ability to take responsibility for emissions that are down to UK demand alone." 

Further information

Contact Prue Griffiths in the University of Leeds press office via p.griffiths@leeds.ac.uk. Image by hectorgalarza from Pixabay

  • Between 1990 and 2016, the UK’s accounting methods reported a 41% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions within the UK’s national borders. Over the same period the UK’s consumption-based emissions (carbon footprint) declined by 15%. The marked difference to the territorial figure is due to the large share of emissions relating to goods and services imported from overseas.
  • UK-based consumption drives emissions across the globe.  The six biggest regions/countries with their percentage of the overall UK carbon footprint are: the EU (9.9%), China (7.3%), Africa (5.3%), the Middle East (5.3%), the USA (3.6%), and Russia (3.1%). 
  • The UK "offshoring" emissions to other countries undermines international efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C and potentially compromises developing country progress against the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.

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