Page last updated at 21:51 GMT, Thursday, 31 July 2008 22:51 UK

UK in 'delusion' over emissions

By Roger Harrabin
BBC environment analyst

Factories
The reports challenge official claims that UK emissions are falling

The UK has been living under a delusion over its claim to be cutting greenhouse gases, according to two reports that will shake the climate change debate.

They show that instead of falling since the 1990s, UK greenhouse emissions have been growing in line with the economy.

This is dependent on emissions from aviation, shipping and imported goods being counted.

At the moment they are excluded under the internationally agreed system for carbon accounts.

Both reports are from the respected Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) based at the University of York.

They are a massive blow to the British government which claimed to have grasped the Holy Grail of climate policy - de-coupling economic growth from emissions growth.

The government has known about this for a very long time but has just refused to face up to it
Stuart Bond, WWF

An SEI report to be published shortly by the campaign group WWF will suggest that the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions are 49% higher than reported emissions.

And a recent little-noticed report for the government department Defra showed that rather than going down 5% as ministers claimed, CO2 emissions have gone up 18% between 1992 and 2004 when all emissions are counted.

The government sat on the Defra SEI report since February, tested its calculations, then published it in an obscure press release on 2 July.

This confirms, as BBC News pointed out last year, that the UK's apparently virtuous carbon cuts have only been achieved because we are getting countries like China to do our dirty work.

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Some would say this allows them to be blamed for increasing their CO2 emissions on our behalf.

In response, the government said the findings highlighted how important it was to tackle climate change on a global scale as well as at a national level.

"I think it's very misleading to say that these figures challenge our figures; they are a different calculation altogether," said Environment Minister Phil Woolas.

"You have to look at emissions globally. These figures will enhance the UK's credibility, not decrease it."

Consumer boom

The Defra-SEI report shows that as manufacturing in the UK has closed down, some of the production has shifted to countries where manufacturing is more carbon intensive than it would be here - in other words, more CO2 is emitted per unit of production.

At the same time, the long consumer boom has led to an increase in the volume and diversity of products being imported. This in turn leads to increased emissions from cargo shipping. Meanwhile, the cheap flights bonanza has pushed up emissions still higher.

Drier balls (BBC)
The UK exports its emissions to China, the report suggests

Under internationally agreed methodology, emissions from international aviation, shipping and imports are not included in a country's greenhouse gas statistics, so this has allowed the UK government to calculate that its greenhouse gases have been falling.

WWF says the new figures are "breathtaking" and make a mockery of the UK's claims of global leadership.

Stuart Bond, WWF's head of research, said: "This shows our claims on emissions are simply a big lie.

"The government has known about this for a very long time but has just refused to face up to it.

"There is no way the government can hope to achieve any of its emissions targets without cheating unless it changes its policies on encouraging flying and hoping to satisfy people's insatiable demands for buying more and more stuff."

Computer modelling

A Defra source said of its SEI report: "It can't be absolutely precise but it is a best estimate of where we are. It is very much in line with other studies on the subject so we are fairly confident of it. It is very interesting background information."

The source said that it would be impossible to include the catch-all SEI figure alongside the UK's annual official emissions statistics because it was based on import/export figures from the Office of National Statistics which would not be updated until 2010.

It would also be undesirable to publish the figure annually, he said, because the "real" number relevant to the UK was the standard CO2 measure calculated according to UN principles.

The SEI report involved a lot of computer modelling, so the UK government "would not want to be held to an international target on it".

WWF said this was a very "convenient" position for the UK to take.

John Barrett, author of the SEI reports to both Defra and WWF, said they could have implications for any post-Kyoto global climate deal.

"Holding China and India responsible for emissions from manufactured goods they sell to us is going to prove very hard to negotiate.

"It would be much easier to base any future deal on emissions at the point of consumption. That feeds into the equity debate in which poor countries will be allowed to increase their CO2.

"It's at the very least misleading for the UK government to claim reductions while we export our emissions. This is a problem no government wants to face.

"In emissions terms, we are constantly battling against increases of wealth. Every year, we don't even manage to improve our energy efficiency to keep up with wealth increases, let alone to cut emissions.

"There's a very fundamental problem here that no-one really wants to talk about."

New deal

The Defra source said it would be almost impossible to negotiate a new climate deal based on consumer nations taking responsibility for the emissions created from manufacturing the goods they import.

The government's new Climate Change Committee under Adair Turner may advise by the end of the year whether the government should include imported emissions in its CO2 inventory.

Aviation emissions are relatively simple to calculate, although there are disagreements about how the sums are done.

Shipping emissions are more complicated. And accurately tracking embedded carbon in imported goods may prove impossible as supply chains for many manufactured items are diverse and ever-changing.

The SEI says this is not as complicated as some believe. It claims a 5% error potential in their calculations.

SEI says:

  • Under the Kyoto protocol accounting, the UK's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2004 were 657 million tonnes
  • Total GHG emissions including imports and excluding exports in 2004 were 979 million tonnes
  • Our consumer-based GHG emissions are 49% higher than our Kyoto-reported emissions

Trends show that:

  • Between 1992 and 2004, Kyoto GHG emissions report a decrease of 13%
  • Between 1992 and 2004, consumer-based GHG emissions increased by 13%.

The increase for overall greenhouse gases is higher than the CO2 increase because it counts methane from agriculture at a time when the UK rapidly increased meat imports.

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