Greenhouse gas emissions associated with UK consumption rose fractionally in 2015, latest available government data shows
The UK's 'carbon footprint' increased slightly in 2015, largely due to a rise in emissions associated with imported goods and services, the latest annual government data shows.
Released yesterday by Defra, the statistics suggest that between 2014 and 2015 the UK's carbon footprint - or 'consumption emissions' - rose by two per cent, reversing a one per cent reduction the previous year.
Overall, it means total greenhouse gases from UK consumption have fallen just four per cent since 1997 when the data was first compiled, even as domestic emissions have plummeted.
It indicates that while emissions produced within the UK economy have shown a steady decline in recent years - CO2 is now at roughly the same level as it was in 1890 due to a drop off in coal power - greenhouse gases associated with domestic consumption and global trade, on the other hand, may be on the rise.
However, the figures also point to some encouraging progress - consumption emissions may be down only fractionally on 1997 levels, but they are around 19 per cent lower than their 2007 peak.
The UK's carbon footprint includes the six main greenhouse gases - CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and three fluorinated compounds - and refers to emissions associated with the consumption spending of UK residents on goods and services, wherever in the world they arise along the supply chain. They also include emissions which are directly generated by UK households, such as through heating and private motoring.
Defined by Defra as "experimental" statistics due to "inherent uncertainties" in making the estimates, compiling the data requires taking account of where the goods purchased by UK residents come from and their associated supply chains.
However, the structure of the UK economy has been shifting towards the services sector over the past few decades and many of the goods consumed by households are now produced abroad, meaning more of the greenhouse gases from producing these goods are emitted outside the UK.
Indeed, yesterday's data shows that emissions relating to the consumption of goods and services produced in the UK have fallen 30 per cent since 2007. However, the proportion of total greenhouse gas footprint accounted for by the production of imports is now much higher at around 50 per cent, whereas in 1997 the proportion was just 36 per cent.
In particular, emissions associated with imports from China were 242 per cent higher in 2015 than they were in 1997, and now account for around nine per cent of the UK's entire carbon footprint. Emissions from the 'rest of the world' have also risen 18 per cent over the period.
In addition, emissions relating to EU imports have increased since 1997, although they have fallen nine per cent since their peak in 2002.
Some analysts have argued the UK's carbon footprint, rather than the UK's territorial emissions, provide a much fuller picture of Britain's global climate impact.
In a 2016 article for BusinessGreen, Nicholas Schoon, policy and communications manager at Bioregional, made the case for paying much greater attention to consumption-based emissions statistics. "If we are serious about tackling climate change and remaining a world leader in that field, then we need to pay attention to the emissions embedded in our imports, and bring these into our trade negotiations," he wrote.
However, the official greenhouse statistics based on territorial emissions within the British Isles are those which are reported to the European Commission and the UNFCCC, and therefore form the basis of the UK's progress towards domestic and international climate targets.
According to Defra, the UK's carbon footprint "is measured in different ways for different purposes". "The different bases should be viewed as complementary ways of accounting for carbon emissions," the data release states.
Either way, with separate global data recently confirming that worldwide emissions rose last year for the first time in three years, the latest figures are a useful reminder that the challenge presented by climate change remains daunting in the extreme.
Influential analyst firm reckons growing maturity of electric vehicles could result in oil demand peaking far earlier than industry expects
Co-working giant has told global staff it won't serve meat in its buildings or reimburse meals on expenses where meat was eaten, in a bold bid to cut emissions
New Green Party report warns surge in waste incineration levels mean valuable materials are going up in flames
Green Alliance's Libby Peake argues UK steel sector can carve a profitable niche with a climate-friendly product, but it needs government help to get there