Public 'misled' over emissions statistics

Ministers have misled the public about Britain’s reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions, the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) said today.

The authority’s chairman, Sir Michael Scholar, said the presentation of the most recent carbon dioxide data by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) was “unsatisfactory” and that changes should be made in the way in which it is presented in future. The use of “carbon credits” bought under the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to represent actual British emissions cuts could give a false impression of progress, he said.

Sir Michael made his comments in a letter to Tim Yeo MP, the Conservative chairman of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, who for some time has been questioning the way the DECC presents Britain’s CO2 figures.

The issue concerns the inclusion in the emissions reduction totals of carbon credits, or tradeable “permits to pollute”, bought by British companies under the ETS. Mr Yeo is worried that when the permits were first created and given out in the first stage of the scheme between 2005 and 2007, EU member states distributed too many of them. Rather than representing real cuts, they may in effect be “hot air”.

Under the circumstances, he thinks that the reductions represented by the credits should not be used simply as part of Britain’s total reduction. Sir Michael said that if the credits are to be included, this must be carefully explained to non-specialists. In particular, he focuses on the CO2 figures for 2007 which say that Britain’s current level of annual emissions (516.9m tonnes) is a 12.8 per cent reduction on 1990 levels – without including the credits, it is a more modest 8.5 per cent.

The table concerned labels the figures “with allowance for trading” and “with no allowance for trading”, but Sir Michael said the presentation of the figures “does in some respects fall short of the code of practice”. He continued: “In particular the figure labelled as ‘CO2 only, with allowance for trading, 2007 Emissions’ in Table 2, shown as 516.9 million tonnes, and as a 12.8 per cent reduction on base year emissions, requires very careful explanation if it is not to mislead the non-expert reader.”

Sir Michael adds that ministers should, in future, include a clearer explanation of how the figures are calculated. “In this case, the figures mentioned are, in our view, likely to be used by non-expert observers to judge progress in reducing CO2 emissions within the UK,” he said. “We regard the quoted figures, and particularly the percentage change, as unsatisfactory in the context of that use.”

Mr Yeo said the figures were not being used in a “straightforward way” and called on ministers to put right the problem “as soon as possible.”

A Department of Energy and Climate Change spokesman said: “These statistics have been published in similar form for several years in full accordance with internationally recognised accounting standards. They clearly explain the difference in emissions with and without the EU emissions trading system, and go into this in detail. However, we’re always seeking to improve publication information and look forward to discussing what ideas the UKSA has for doing so.”