The UK must own up to the full scale of its emissions problem

This piece by Alex Randall and Guy Shrubsole was originally published on Guardian Comment is Free.

Last week the Guardian reported that the UK”s carbon emissions have dropped. In fact they”ve gone up. New material released under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) reveals that the government knows this, but is actively deciding to do nothing.

Recent reports show that the UK”s emissions have risen once our consumption of imported goods and services are factored in. We can now reveal that civil servants, too, have been briefing ministers on this very fact – but that they have failed to do anything about it.

An environmental ministerial briefing from last year, which we have obtained under an FoI request, states unambiguously: “Total UK emissions have increased by 19% since 1990. Net imported CO2emissions (embedded in the products and services UK citizens buy) have risen substantially. This has counteracted the 12% reduction in UK domestic emissions.”

The briefing goes on to warn that energy efficiency gains have been outweighed by an ongoing rise in consumption of imported goods. “While technological efficiency has improved the CO2 impacts of our products since 1992,” it states, “the rise in UK consumption has outstripped the improvements achieved.” This much is already known from various academic studies, including one commissioned – and published – by Defra themselves in 2008.

Yet we now know that ministers have been hearing this advice for years – but have not acted upon it. Separate FoI requests lodged with the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) reveal ministers in those departments, too, have received briefings on “outsourced” emissions. All three departments, however, have refused to release further details of the briefings, on grounds that they contain “arguments considering difficult and potentially controversial areas”.

In reponse to one of the FoIs, Decc revealed that a briefing had been prepared for a ministerial response to the only parliamentary debate that has ever been held on this subject. Lord Faulkner, who represented Decc in the Lords debate, listed his objections to taking action on outsourced emissions – among which was his feeling that the government was too busy to work out how to measure them. “Our view is that the committee [on climate change] has more than enough work to do in the next year to keep it busy,” he said.

Some may maintain that such emissions are not our problem, but rather the country”s that they were produced in. Yet it is western consumption patterns that generates the market demand. Our lifestyles are built on cheap consumer goods sourced from countries with low labour costs and minimal environmental standards. As more and more global manufacturing is transferred to China, the UK reaps the benefit of cheap imports without paying the full cost of the resulting pollution.

Between a quarter and a third of China”s emissions, it is estimated, are now the ultimate responsibility of western countries. Instead of acknowledging this fact, public discussion too often descends best online casino into “blame China syndrome” – asserting that as China is building a power station a week, there”s really very little the UK can do to effectively tackle global emissions. Given that we are the ones buying their goods, we clearly have some say over the matter.

But merely adopting piecemeal, consumer-focused approaches to address outsourced emissions, such as product carbon labelling, won”t cut it. The UK needs to start being honest and owning up to the full scale of the problem.

Civil servants will object that the Kyoto accounting methodology doesn”t allocate emissions this way. But we can”t just brush the matter under the carpet. The Kyoto protocol expires in 2012, so to encourage progress towards a replacement global deal the UK should pioneer a new approach. It should begin to count outsourced emissions alongside national greenhouse gas emissions – something often referred to as “consumption-based accounting”. This is what the government”s own research recommended in 2008 – but which ministers have so far failed to act upon.

Outsourced emissions are a huge and growing problem. Yet it is one the UK government is completely failing to acknowledge, let alone address. Only Defra”s chief scientific adviser, Bob Watson, has so far spoken on the matter publicly, stating in an interview last September that “we”ve got to be more open about this”. Being more open about what advice ministers are being given on this crucial issue would be a good start.

• Guy Shrubsole is director of the Public Interest Research Centre.

• Alex Randall is an environmental researcher and activist.

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