Helping the UK's progress towards carbon targets

Greenhouse gas emissions produced within the UK reduced by 40 per cent between 1990 and 2016. Good news you might think – except that figure only tells part of the story. Over that period, the UK saw much of its energy-intensive manufacturing replaced by service industries. Meanwhile, the country began to import more energy-intensive products – effectively outsourcing its emissions to other countries where these had been manufactured.

These emissions would likely have remained hidden in official statistics and unacknowledged in government policy but for the work of Professor John Barrett and his team, from the University’s Sustainability Research Institute. They created a complex emissions model that takes into account the energy and materials used, not only in what the UK produces, but also the imported products it consumes – essentially calculating the country’s overall carbon footprint. They found that the UK’s emissions had in fact reduced by just 13 per cent between 1990 and 2016, which is far from the scale required to tackle climate change effectively.

History and the future

After building up a historic picture of the UK’s consumption patterns and emissions, the team then linked the model with economic forecasts, to calculate the potential impact of future UK consumption on energy usage and emissions. This allowed them to identify the strategies needed to reduce energy needs and what policies could be used to put those strategies into effect. The model is able to look not just at a country level, for the UK and the devolved nations, but also by sector or industry, particularly those with high energy demand such as construction, steel, chemicals and paper.

To calculate the UK’s ‘outsourced’ emissions, the team has to take the economic national accounts of every country in the world and attach emissions to them, then bring these together through a global trade model which understands how all the countries interact, their climate strategies and changes in their trading relationships and consumption patterns.

With over a billion data points, keeping the model updated and running it for any particular scenario is a huge undertaking, but the work is automated as much as possible.

Influencing policy

In 2016, Professor Barrett gave evidence on his research to the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change. The committee subsequently recommended that the government incorporate consumption-based emissions data into their decision-making processes and include it in future carbon budgets.

The UK became the first country in the world to calculate emissions in this way and Professor Barrett’s research group is the official provider of this data. The group works with the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Scottish and Welsh Governments.

Professor Barrett says: “We help government agencies and departments to understand the economic consequences of different paths to reduce energy demand. In particular, we provide the CCC with evidence and data so they can monitor the UK government’s progress towards its carbon targets. Transition to a green economy is going to mean structural changes – certain sectors will no longer exist or be much smaller. But it should be possible to make that transition in a way that protects jobs and regional prosperity as much as possible.”

Professor Barrett’s research is funded through UK Research and Innovation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, as part of the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS).