A team of researchers at Oxford University has recalculated Britain’s carbon emissions since 1990 – and found that they have increased by 19%. (News report here.) The official figures – calculated according to the UN’s method – say that emissions have fallen by 15% over the period. However, the researchers, led by Dieter Helm, included UK contributions to international aviation demand, tourism and overseas business, and emissions generated abroad in the production and distribution of goods destined for the UK market.

Their short report, Too Good To Be True, which is available in pdf on Dieter Helm’s website, sets out the claims made by Britain in its introduction:

At first glance Britain has one of the best records in Europe on climate change; greenhouse gas emissions fell in the 1990s and it has already surpassed its 2012 Kyoto target. The energy ratio has improved, reflecting a decoupling of economic growth from energy demand. This record has been trumpeted by politicians as part of a British claim to European and global leadership on climate change.

Their argument – although they acknowledge that more detailed research is needed – is that this apparent decoupling is a mirage, based on the so-called ‘dash for gas’ at the expense of coal, and de-industrialisation of the domestic manufacturing base, and substitution of manufacturing imports.

This is because the UN methododology, the UNFCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, invented to implement the Kyoto agreement, effectively records the production of emissions by a territory, rather than emissions related to its consumption.

What’s missing from a production account?

  • consumption in a non-UK territory, for example during business trips and foreign holidays;
  • consumption between countries, for example through international aviation and shipping;
  • consumption of greenhouse gases embedded in imported goods;
  • the full global warming impact (for example, in aviation).

(Some UK-based activities which produce emissions are by UK-resident citizens, and these need to be deducted from the overall reckoning).

The policy conclusions are as follows:

First, the UK should check its progress using accounts based on greenhouse gas consumption. Second, with a substantial portion of its greenhouse gas footprint overseas in China and among other trade partners, the UK is itself partially responsible for the rapid emissions growth in developing countries, and this responsibility has implications for the allocation of future international greenhouse gas targets. Third, if the UK wishes to back its leadership claim in the global climate change debate, it would imply more aggressive policy geared to reducing greenhouse gas consumption.

There is good coverage of different carbon ccounting and measurement methods, as well as some good data charts (for example on the growth in tourism and imports related to UK emissions). The researchers also point out that the emissions gains from the ‘dash for gas’ were a one-off substitution effect, and didn’t reflect an underlying shift in the carbon use patterns in the economy.

All of which leads the low carbon kid to blog that,

The depressing report only serves to underline the need to consume less, and to consume locally – either we downsize in a planned and managed way, as the Transition Towns movement is trying to do for example, or we will be forced to do so later in a much more unpleasant fashion.

Related posts: Humans versus the biosphere, China overtakes US as biggest CO2 emitter, and Visualising consumption.