Everyone reading this will know that the UK has made a legally binding commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Green-tinged government supporters make a lot of noise about this. But did you know that this target excludes emissions associated with imports? I confess that, despite being aware of the hidden carbon emissions in much of our economy, I did know fully appreciate this omission. You can see the reason as if we did there would be double-counting when global figures are totted up. In our turn we count our exports and someone else gets to ignore their imports. You can see the convenience in this arrangement and it neatly avoids the complications when exports contain much material that has been imported; for example in cars.
But the numbers are significant. A WWF-commissioned study by the University of Leeds reports that these hidden emissions accounted for 46% of the UK’s overall carbon footprint in 2019. This has grown from 14% cent in 1990. One reason for this is because we now import more energy-intensive goods that we used to make here. Think steel. Then there is the clothing, foods and electronics (etc) imported into the UK. All those phones, computers, TVs, consoles, white goods, ... .
The report says that between 1990 and 2016 direct emissions within the UK fell by 41% but UK+imports footprint dropped by only 15%. The Times reported Dr Stephen Cornelius, chief climate change adviser at the WWF, saying: “Climate change is a global problem that needs a global solution. The UK has committed to net zero emissions and a credible plan to achieve this is one that tackles emissions based on what we consume, as well as what we produce.”
One of the study’s authors, Professor John Barrett from the University of Leeds, said: “Increasingly, the impact of our consumption occurs outside the UK creating a situation where our emissions inside the country reduce while emissions associated with imports increase. It is essential that the UK commits to reducing its emissions both inside and outside the UK to adequately respond to the climate crisis.”
So it is, but doing anything will take time, and there would need to be international agreement on the carbon footprint accountancy rules. Meanwhile, we all need to remember the hidden footprint when next we're tempted into hubris at the country's success.