Why Britain is failing to cut its carbon footprint

When imports are taken into account the UK's emissions are rising. Tom Bawden reports

Successive governments have made much of the fact that Britain's CO2 emissions have come down sharply in the past two decades. But a government advisory committee has laid bare these pretensions, revealing that when emissions generated by the production of the UK's imports are factored in, the country's carbon footprint is actually 10 per cent higher than in 1993.

In a study of the impact of the UK's imports on its carbon output, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) reported a 40 per cent jump in import-generated emissions between 1993 and 2010, as the winding down of manufacturing industry pushed up purchases from abroad by 90 per cent.

The colossal rise in imports, mostly from developing countries with rapidly expanding carbon footprints, has made Britain the world's second biggest net importer of emissions, behind Japan, and casts a shadow over its claim of global leadership in reducing CO2 output.

The CCC argues that the rise in consumption-based emissions underlines the need for the UK – and the world as a whole – to step up its action against climate change to ensure that temperatures don't rise by more than the 2C beyond which many believe the consequences would be devastating.

But while the CCC's chief executive, David Kennedy, says "there needs to be a reversal of the increase in imported emissions over time", for now he believes that the UK needs to concentrate on reducing its own CO2 output first. He warns that the UK was likely to miss its target of reducing emissions by 50 per cent by 2025 compared to 1990 – a target purely for gases generated in the UK. The reduction so far is just 20 per cent, even after the recession has cut economic output – while last year emissions increased by 3.5 per cent as the cold weather pushed up residential gas use.

The CCC was set up under the 2008 Climate Change Act to advise on the best way of meeting the act's requirement for an 80 per cent cut in emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. Its report found that, contrary to opponents' claims, the impact of carbon policies on jobs and the economy was "negligible" and has had "at most a minor impact in reducing production emissions".

Instead, the 19 per cent drop in UK CO2 emissions in the past two decades is the result of a switch from coal to relatively clean gas energy generation, other policies such as EU rules on reducing landfill, and, in the past four years, the weak economy.

The committee said that while additional low-carbon taxes could push up energy costs by as much as a quarter this decade for industrial users such as steel and aluminium plants, gas and electricity account for just 3 per cent of total industry costs, meaning these green actions are unlikely to affect the economy much.

Despite the finding, the CBI's director for business environment policy, Rhian Kelly, is concerned about the danger of hitting energy-intensive companies with rising green tariffs. "The Government has the building blocks in place, but it must follow through on its commitments to shield energy-intensive industries from new energy costs," she says.

Kennedy says Britain should concentrate on cutting its own emissions because it is "unrealistic that it can transform the energy systems of other countries not on a low-carbon path". However, he argues that in the absence of a global deal to drive down CO2 the UK may eventually have to think about taxing imported goods from countries with weaker environmental laws as an interim measure.

Joss Garman, Greenpeace UK's political director, says: "To prevent serious climate change the transition to a cleaner economy based on new industries and technologies can't only happen in the UK. That's why it's essential we and the rest of Europe work to deepen partnerships with other countries – both in the developed and the developing world – who are also committed to cutting carbon emissions."

While securing a global agreement in 2015 – as planned – is likely to prove extremely challenging, the UK has its work cut out just tending to its own affairs, Kennedy warns.

He says the Government needs to give a clear signal to potential investors in low-carbon technology that there will be a market for their energy if they are to be persuaded to plough tens of billions of pounds into clean power projects over the next decade. But Kennedy says the Government is being "half-hearted" in its support of low carbon technologies and is putting off potential clean energy backers as a result.

"To move to a low-carbon power system you need investors to put money into the supply chain – turbines, blades, poles and so on – and people to develop projects such as wind farms and nuclear.

"The Government should be giving more clarity, but it won't commit. That uncertainty is stopping investment," he says.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Administrator

£13000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about custom...

Recruitment Genius: Dialler Administrator

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Main purpose: Under the directi...

Ashdown Group: Contracts Manager - City of London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Contracts Manager - City...

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms