Between 1990 and 2016 the UK government was proud to report a 41% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions within the UK’s national borders.
But in a report published in March 2020 , WWF show that in fact, during this period, the UK’s consumption-based emissions (carbon footprint) declined by only 15%.
The marked difference from the government’s figure is due to the large share of emissions relating to goods and services imported from overseas. The difference, therefore, implies that while the UK has made progress to reduce its contribution to climate change, it is very much less than claimed.
The UK government calculates only territorial-based emissions. These emissions take place within the UK (plus offshore areas over which the country has jurisdiction) . Note that these are sometimes called production-based emissions .
The UK government totally neglects to take into account the effects of trade. These consumption-based emissions include both the emissions caused by the production of goods overseas plus emissions within the UK caused by final domestic consumption of those goods. These are sometimes called demand-based emissions .
As far as the government is concerned, if the European Union or China or Africa create emissions to generate goods which they then ship to UK consumers, those emissions should be added to those countries emission totals, not to the UK’s. But in 2016, 46% of the UK’s carbon footprint came from emissions released overseas to satisfy UK production, up from only 14% in 1990. These emissions are not covered by national emission reporting and therefore are not targeted by domestic climate policy.
Our figure below illustrates this dramatic failure.
The UK government has expressed a commitment to end its contribution to climate change through the territorial net-zero emissions target in the Climate Change Act. However, the UK has been deindustrialising and increasing the proportion of food it imports which have offshored the production and associated emissions for many goods we rely on.
Better understanding the implications of UK decarbonisation to offshoring production and associated emissions will help identify additional policies and partnerships the Government should pursue to ensure domestic efforts do indeed help end the UK’s contribution to climate change.
In this report, WWF examine the UK’S greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between 1990 and 2016 using a new model developed by researchers from the University of Leeds. In this report, an individual’s carbon footprint is considered to be the total amount of greenhouse gas released in the production and consumption of all the goods and services they use, wherever in the world these goods and services are produced.
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2006). IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories. Japan: Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. p. 7.