UK’s total emissions set to rise: new data obtained by PIRC 3

The UK’s total emissions are set to rise, PIRC can reveal – as shown in yet-to-be-published calculations by the government’s Carbon Trust.

Whilst on paper, Britain’s carbon emissions have declined, in reality they have grown – once emissions from imported goods are factored in. From a consumption perspective, the UK’s emissions have risen by 19% since 1990. New data from the Carbon Trust shows that by 2025 the UK’s total carbon footprint could actually be bigger than it is today, despite legally-binding targets to cut it by a third. Whilst domestic emissions will look smaller, almost half of the country’s footprint will be unseen, as the emissions will originate overseas.

The graph above, put together by the Carbon Trust, shows how the gulf between counted emissions and reality is projected to grow, as ‘outsourced emissions’ rise inexorably.

The Carbon Trust’s findings can be downloaded here. Today, PIRC also releases previously unpublished government documents it has obtained under the Freedom of Information Act following a 3-month investigation into outsourced emissions.

The full set of documents are available to download as a zip file here. Over the coming weeks, we will be analysing their content in detail. For now, to summarise some key findings:

  • The government has long been aware of the issue of outsourced emissions and has repeatedly briefed Ministers about it – yet has failed to take meaningful action. One briefing states: “We have long known about embedded emissions as an issue and, given known trends in the UK’s trade balance and economic growth over the relevant period, the results are not surprising.” Another states: “increased emissions from UK consumption could cancel out the progress that we have made in reducing domestic carbon emissions.” Documents show civil servants have been investigating the matter since at least 2004.
  • The government accepts the UK bears some responsibility for outsourced emissions, though it is reluctant to admit this publicly. Whilst one briefing claims that “Government policy has much less leverage over emissions that occur abroad”, it also states: “Nevertheless, we recognise that we do have a certain amount of control over emissions from abroad, as this is where many of our products come from. Consumer demand can be a powerful influence on manufacturers. The energy that goes into making many consumer goods might be used in another country, but by purchasing these products, we are contributing to that energy consumption.”
  • The government also knows that energy efficiency improvements are not enough to offset growth in consumption. Newly-uncovered documents state: “While technological efficiency has improved the CO2 impacts of our products since 1992, the rise in UK consumption has outstripped the improvements achieved”; and “the Government needs to be cautious about over-claiming on its achievements in decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation”.
  • The great majority of the UK’s outsourced emissions are created in China and other developing countries without any form of binding emissions targets. In 2004, UK consumption resulted in a net balance of 125Mt CO2 being emitted in China and other non-Annex 1 countries. Had the emissions occurred in the UK, we would have had to pay a price for the carbon emitted in their manufacture. Instead, no-one anywhere bore the full ecological costs of this consumption – except the planet itself.


  • A Defra-commissioned report on outsourced emissions in 2008 was dogged by controversy and delays in its release. As BBC journalist Roger Harrabin reported at the time, “The government sat on the Defra SEI report since February, tested its calculations, then published it in an obscure press release on 2 July.” A Defra briefing from May 2008 obtained under FOI states: “It is well known, at least in the research community, that Defra has recently completed this project. There is no good reason to delay publication and doing so may attract unwarranted negative attention.” Why was the government so reluctant to publish this evidence?
  • The government has repeatedly refused to ask the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to investigate the matter properly. Yet the Committee has shown repeated interest in examining the problem, and government has suggested that ordering such an investigation is merely a mattering of timing, not principle. A DECC briefing from October 2009 states: “Any decision to commission work from the CCC on embedded emissions should… await the outcome of Copenhagen”; whilst a briefing from January 2010 suggests that, “While it would be possible to ask the Committee to look at embedded emissions, they have more than enough work to do in the next year to keep them very busy.” However, in December 2010, the CCC themselves told Ministers that “The Government should commission the CCC to look into the implications of considering UK emissions on a consumption rather than a production basis.” When asked in a Parliamentary Question in February 2011 whether he would request the CCC to look into the matter, DECC Minister Greg Barker stated, “I have not made a request”. Why is the government ignoring the advice of its own advisors?

We’ll be offering further analysis later this week.


  1. Graeme Graeme

    This article is pretty depressing really……but:

    Not that I think it will change anything but, if we are going to include the hidden footprint of Britain’s IMPORTS, shouldn’t we exclude the footprint of our EXPORTS in order to avoid double counting?

  2. Guy Shrubsole Guy Shrubsole

    Hi Graeme, thanks for your comment. The Carbon Trust’s analysis takes this into account: it measures net emissions, so subtracts what we export from what we import. The UK has a trade imbalance, i.e. we currently import more than we export. Even more acutely, we have a carbon trade imbalance – we import high-carbon goods but export low-carbon services. So using conventional emissions accounting we have lower emissions, but on balance, our lifestyles aren’t being decarbonised – we’re still heavily dependent on carbon to produce the goods we buy and consume.

    Hope that helps explain it. Guy


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