UK carbon footprint rises

Greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs) associated with UK consumption increased in 2013 due largely to a change in countries it sources goods from, according to government data.

Between 2012 and 2013, the UK’s carbon footprint increased by 3% due to a rise in emissions from imported goods and household emissions, the statistics from the environment department (Defra) revealed.

The data refers to emissions associated with the consumption spending by UK residents on goods and services with international supply chains, and those directly generated by households, including heating and private motoring. It excludes those arising from goods produced in the UK that are exported.

GHGs from imports increased by 41% between 1997, when Defra began recording data, and 2007, when they reached a peak. Despite falling since 2007, GHG emissions from imports remained 10% higher in 2013 than in 1997. Between 2012 and 2013, they increased by 3%. 

The proportion of total GHG footprint accounted for by the production of goods imported to the UK was slightly higher in 2013 (55%) than in 1997 (47%). Defra cites a higher level of embedded emissions in imports from China and the rest of the world in 2013, compared with 1997, which offset lower levels in emissions from goods from the EU. 

Emissions associated with imports from China were lower in 2013 than in 2007, but 112% higher than in 1997. They accounted for 20% of emissions associated with imports in 2013 compared with 11% in 1997.

Dr Anne Owen, research associate at the University of Leeds, part of the team who analysed the data for Defra, said that new trade deals set up in the wake of the decision to leave the EU could have implications for the UK’s carbon footprint. 

‘Replacing trade with the EU with trade from other countries would probably bring about an increase in emissions. Trade is a good thing but certain products are made more efficiently here than abroad. China is cleaning up its act, with more electricity being made using renewable sources, so we will see the products become cleaner but they’re definitely dirtier than domestic products,’ she said.

However, there would not be such an issue if trade with the EU is replaced with trade with more developed countries such as the Japan and the US, she added.

Source: UK’s carbon footprint 1997-2013, Defra

Carbon dioxide had the highest contribution to UK consumption-related GHGs, accounting for 96% of emissions generated directly by households; 81% of emissions from goods and services produced and consumed in the UK; and 60% of GHGs embedded in imported goods and services.

The carbon footprint of all product groups except power and water increased between 2012 and 2013. The biggest increases were in: 

  • manufacturing – +0.3 Mt/CO2 (a 23% rise);
  • mining – +0.01 Mt/CO2 (19.5%); and
  • metals – +0.1 Mt/CO2 (17%).

Defra said the power sector reduced its emissions between 2012 and 2013, mainly by changing in the fuel mix used at power stations for generating electricity. There was also a decline in coal and gas consumption in power stations, which led to a decrease in emissions from electricity generation.

The document stresses that the data is experimental, as non-CO2 emissions are hard to estimate. Changes to methodology over the years has resulted in lower estimates for the UK’s carbon footprint for the years before 2008, while estimates from 2009 onwards show little change, the document states. 

Overall, Owen noted that the data demonstrates that the link between GDP and environmental impact is very strong. ‘We’d like to be able to decouple that, but it’s very difficult to see that happening. Any slight recovery brings an increase in emissions, which we can see between 2012 and 2013,’ she said.

Several recent reports have shown that emissions and GDP are beginning to be decoupled in certain parts of the world. Owen said that looking at emissions from a footprint perspective may tell a different story. ‘We might have decoupled by exporting our emissions abroad – reducing our territorial emissions by shutting down heavy industry factories and then importing them from abroad,’ she pointed out.


Catherine Early is a freelance journalist.

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