Friday, 27 November 2009

UK’s Unaccounted Carbon

We hear in the media that China is now building about two power stations every week. The Chinese are increasing emissions at the rate of 2.8% annually.[1] This is when you begin to wonder whether Britons, who officially emit only 2% of global emissions, should even bother with living in 'zero carbon' homes, giving up their cars and avoiding foreign holidays in order to reduce their carbon footprint.

Ignored embodied carbon
The truth is that there is a fault in the current carbon accounting methodology. The carbon emissions accounting does not factor in the manufacturing of foreign goods consumed by Britons. Over the last few decades a large part of UK’s manufacturing moved offshore to countries such as China and India.

My rough calculation on per capita carbon emissions based on a recent report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development[2] indicates that UK’s per capita emissions which is currently stated as 9.2tCO2/person will actually be closer to 15.4 tCO2 per person, an increase of 40%.

Another report by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) implies that once imports, exports and international transport are included the carbon emissions are almost 50% higher than official figures for UK[3]. Dieter Helm, a professor of economics at Oxford University also suggests a similar increase in his report ‘Too Good To Be True? The UK’s Climate Change Record’[4].

Made in China
Indirect carbon emissions stem from manufacturing of goods that you buy, since the materials incorporated in the products require energy for extraction, processing and transportation, which generates carbon emissions. Globally 36% of carbon emissions are attributable to manufacturing industries.
Industrial emissions contribute 14% of the UK’s carbon emissions [20% if the power sector is included][5] compared to China where they are 70%. Even if you discount the fact that a large component will be to serve its growing domestic market, there is little doubt that a large chunk of the Chinese emissions are for export purposes[6].

Taking some responsibility
Under international agreements such as UNFCCC, nations only have influence and responsibility over their direct national carbon emissions. This is mainly because it is easier to count the emissions at source of generation or production. However this presents the problem that movement of commodities are not fairly accounted for.

To make an analogy, the person who consumes the endangered blue fin is partially responsible for eradicating the fish as is the company fishing it as is the restaurant serving the delicacy. Likewise, a building that uses electricity from a coal-fired power station is as [if not more] culpable for emitting carbon as the power station. Your logic will tell you that it is the demand that drives the supply and not the other way around.

Besides better accounting, which needs to be based on consumption rather than production of CO2, the West could do more to help in the following ways:
  • Ensure technology transfer in clean technologies [e.g. capture and storage technology] to reduce carbon intensity of energy generation
  • Investment in low carbon manufacturing plants to reduce footprint of goods [e.g. improvements to motor systems, including variable speed drives and steam systems, including combined heat and power (CHP)]
  • Regulate the level imports based on embodied carbon of goods
  • Increase awareness to reduce consumption
  • Create a market for low carbon goods [e.g. through carbon labeling]

[2] Glen Peters et al, 2009. CO2 Carbon Footprint of Nations: A Global, Trade Link Analysis, American Chemical Society
[4] Dieter Helm et al, 2007. Too Good To Be True? The UK’s Climate Change Record, website:


joanium said...

The Carbon Footprint of Nations expresses the trade-based footprint of countries beautifully.

If you want to delve into the raw data, the Norwegian creators of the website have their fully accessible journal article here -- Carbon Footprint of Nations: A Global, Trade-Linked Analysis.

Fab stuff.

joanium said...

Oh, I see you've already referenced the Hertwich and Peters (2008) article!

Prashant Kapoor said...

Thanks, for the Links. Have updated the reference.