climate change

Opinion: Britain’s true carbon footprint


By Jeremy Williams

Almost every time a British politician speaks about climate change, they will claim global leadership. It might be claimed with pride in our acheivements as a way of selling the next step to sceptical colleagues and the general public. Or it can be used to dismiss further action – ‘we already do more than anyone else, go and bother China about it’.

It’s partly true. Britain was a leader in passing the Climate Change Act and setting the world’s first legally binding national targets. We are yet to back it up with serious action, but the net zero by 2050 target is a first for a major economy. And Britain’s carbon emissions from electricity have fallen dramatically in the last decade as renewable energy capacity has expanded.

I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth mentioning again: net-zero doesn’t mean, as Theresa May said when she announced it, that Britain would be “ending our contribution to climate change”. The net zero target is for Britain’s territorial emissions – the greenhouse gases released in Britain. Our overall carbon footprint would need to include imports. And that’s not such a success story.

The WWF recently released an update on Britain’s total carbon footprint. It’s shown in the graph here as the blue line, well above the more flattering grey line which is the official metric of choice.


Territorial emissions have fallen 41% since 1990. There are plenty of success stories in that, so I have no intention of being cynical about it. But overall carbon footprint has only fallen by 15%, if you count the emissions in the goods that we import, and the international transport that is exempt from national accounting.

Through imports, we get to outsource our emissions to the accounts of others. Almost 10% of our emissions occur in Europe. 7.3% of them have been displaced to China. Africa and the Middle East carry 5.3% each for us.

What do we do about this? Fly less. Buy less stuff. Shop local where we can, and reuse things. We know this already.

Globalization matters, and we can’t ignore awkward things like aviation or shipping. It’s why a degree of appropriate relocalization should be part of any climate change strategy, starting with things that we ought to be doing for ourselves anyway, like growing more food. Consumerism has to be part of it too, starting with reducing the cultural hold of things like fast fashion and disposability. The circular economy comes into it, ensuring that things stay in circulation rather than relying on imports of goods and materials.

Britain uses national territorial emissions by international agreement, so any deception here is institutional rather than personal. But we should still talk with a little more humility about Britain’s climate leadership.

First published in The Earthbound Report.


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