The government’s new chief energy scientist Professor David MacKay told the BBC that reductions in carbon dioxide emissions since 1990 are “an illusion”. Greenhouse gas emissions created by Britons are probably twice as bad as figures suggest. “Our energy footprint has decreased over the last few decades and that’s largely because we’ve exported our industry,” he said. Developing countries now made the goods that Britain buys, he added.
He was speaking unofficially in a previously recorded interview, but his comments will increase pressure on the UK to improve its offer of emissions cuts at the upcoming climate change talks.
“Other countries make stuff for us so we have naughty, naughty China and India out of control with rising emissions but it’s because they are making our stuff for us now,” he said.
“It’s been estimated by Dieter Helm from the University of Oxford that roughly half of our energy footprint actually lives overseas so our true footprint is twice as big as it looks on paper.”
Prof Helm’s paper suggests if the UK counted “embedded” emissions, its total pollution would have gone up not down.
Mackay is the author of the highly influential book Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, has won plaudits from both environmentalists and policymakers alike for his no-nonsense, science-based approach to dealing with renewable energy technologies.
Prof MacKay’s comments apply to all developed countries whose manufacturing industries have relocated to the developing world. He adds that we are right up there on the winners podium for carbon dioxide emissions per person over the last 125 years.
He also tackles sceptics of climate policy who argue the UK’s 2% share of current global emissions is trivial. If you take into account historic CO2, the UK is among the top three world polluters, he points out.
“The argument that we are only a small country could be used by pretty much every country on the planet and then we’d all do nothing,” he said.
“Back in 1910 we were burning per capita the same amount as Americans do today so that’s an argument for saying we really have an ethical duty to take a lead and show the way and show that it is possible for a developed country to seriously decarbonise its economy.
“By historical emissions per capita the top three are America, Germany and Britain so we are right up there on the winners podium for carbon dioxide emissions per person over the last 125 years.
Prof MacKay started his new job on Thursday, and his new employers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) do not challenge his figures.
A spokesman said: “While some emission reductions have resulted from the trend for manufacturing to move overseas, it’s internationally accepted that emissions from manufacturing are counted by the country of production.”
If global warming is to be limited, the US and Europe will have to take much more drastic action to reduce those emissions embedded in their own consumption.
Prof Dieter Helm
Setting a baseline of 1990 for emissions cuts allowed the UK to cut emissions without trying because 1990 was a peak of coal burning in Britain.
A study from the Stockholm Environment Institute estimated when embedded emissions are taken into account, the average UK resident pollutes 15 tonnes a year – almost five times more than the average Chinese person at 3.1 tonnes a year.
The failure to calculate embedded emissions has damaged the reputation of countries such as China which are making goods for export to the West but are then blamed for the pollution that results.
Prof Helm’s paper says: “If carbon outsourcing is factored back in, the UK’s impressive emissions cuts over the past two decades don’t look so impressive anymore. “Rather than falling by over 15% since 1990, they actually rose by around 19%. And even this is flattering, since the UK closed most of its coal industry in the 1990s for reasons unrelated to climate change.
“No doubt, recalculating the figures for other European countries and the US would reveal a similar pattern.”
It is consumption and not production that matters, according to Prof Helm. “This means that if global warming is to be limited, the US and Europe will have to take much more drastic action to reduce those emissions embedded in their own consumption,” he said.
“Their appropriate emissions reduction targets will have to be based on the consumption of goods that cause those emissions in the first place. This not only means that the true scale of required emissions reductions in the Western world will be much higher but that the impact on economic growth and living standards there will also be more severe than so far believed.”
Image is of Drax, the coal-fired power station located near Selby in North Yorkshire, England. It provides 7% of the electrical power required by Britain. Although it generates around 1.5 million tonnes of ash and 22.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, Drax is the most carbon efficient coal-fired powerplant in the UK. In 2005 Drax produced 20.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. The Times newspaper reported that this is more than the total amount produced by 103 of the world’s small unindustrialized nations. By comparison, vehicles in the UK emitted 91 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Drax is the biggest single source of carbon dioxide in the UK. Photo by Jason Hawkes