The illusion of fossil fuel cuts

The United Kingdom has had significant success in reducing its carbon emissions, and will almost certainly succeed in meeting its commitments under the Kyoto accord.

Long term the trend is clear:

UK greenhouse gas emissions fall 8.7    Environment   The Guardian

Having said that, I am typing this on a laptop made in China, while listening to music on my iPod, made in China, using speakers, also made in China. Now, I suspect the carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere when these products were manufactured are not on the UK’s books. In a world where anything can be made anywhere and consumed any place it is equally important to ask about the carbon footprint of our consumption.

Fortunately, the UK government recently updated its statistics on the UK’s consumption footprint, which tells a rather different story than that under the Kyoto narrative.

UK’s Carbon Footprint – Carbon dioxide emissions relating to UK consumption « Statistics

In straightforward terms the UK is manufacturing less, and exporting most of its old manufacturing to China. The emissions mostly go on their books, and we can applaud ourselves for meeting our Kyoto targets.

So, unless China can limit its appetite for coal the UK’s carbon emissions cuts are, as David MacKay and others, have said “an illusion.”

The problem of “carbon leakage” has to be faced honestly, and without special pleading. Consider the recent report from the Tyndall Centre on the impact of US fracking on carbon emissions. The report concluded that shale gas while reducing coal use in the US was also driving up coal exports from the US. Perfectly true, yet one must ask how this is not also true of renewables or nuclear energy.

Carbon leakage is a problem in need of a solution. My own view is that Dieter Helm appears to be on the money on this with his suggestion that countries should put a carbon tax on imports. There are other possible solutions to this. For example broadening cap and trade regimes, such as Australia’s decision to join up with the European Emissions Trading Scheme. (Some of us, of course, are inclined to view cap and trade as “half assed.”)

A final note: while illusory it is also worth while quantifying how illusory emissions cuts are. And also how much carbon leakage will result from various policies. This is something I haven’t seen much of, though may be someone can’t be point me in the right direction in the comments section. However, some things, such as switching from coal to gas in America, may be a lot less leaky than others.

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7 thoughts on “The illusion of fossil fuel cuts”

  1. I remember there being some talk a month or so ago in Swedish media about a researcher that looked at both CO2 imports and exports, i.e. Sweden lost some ground for importing a lot like all western countries but the goods we still make using mainly hydro and nuclear electricity and export made up for that to some degree. That seemed to me a useful way to present the issue that doesn’t hide the emissions from imports but still shows that advances can be made by cleaning up the domestic energy supply. I’m sure similar calculations must be available for other countries?

    1. Anders

      I’m not that very familiar with the figures for other countries. I’ve seen estimate for France and Germany which were similar. I might try to pull them together and do a lengthier blog on the subject.

      1. Yeah, I just meant that maybe there was data for the UK that included exported goods like the ones for Sweden I described, UK electricity must be quite a ways cleaner than a lot of major export countries even with your coal plants I would assume. It was absolutely not a complaint on your post, I’m honestly impressed that you manage to keep such quality at the pace your going. :)

  2. Robert,

    I think that there is a fair amount of documentation on this subject. In particular papers from the UK Climate Change Committee and the Common’s Select Committee for Energy and Climate Change.

    E.G.

    “Energy and Climate Change – Twelfth Report Consumption-Based Emissions Reporting”

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmenergy/1646/164602.htm

    I thnk it is worth a quick flick through.

    There are/were people pulling on the rope to get consumption based emission reporting for England/Wales as is the case under the The Climate Change (Scotland) Act.

    I think that many would agree that statutary reporting would be a good thing but that doesn’t mean that it should directly affect targets. There is a risk of double counting, and force majeure. If we add them in to our figures that has to be reflected as composing part of any catchup leeway granted to the developing producers, and the second point occurs if they do not reduce their imbedded emissions and we miss our targets through actions beyond our control.

    Making a very general point, the UK has legislation and it is seldom discussed particularly the nature and force of the legislation.

    It kicks of as follows:

    PART I.1.1

    It is the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline.

    The rest is important but that sentence is key.

    Judging from the banter in the media, one might be excused for thinking that emission cuts were solely a matter of policy that can be quielty forgotten.

    My understanding is quite different, I am no lawyer but I think that the force of the sentence is to impel the Secretary of State to act in accordance to this statute. It is a statute that applies to government, the executive, until 2050 or its repeal. Other legislation may be required to ensure its achievement and the executive are compelled to do what is sufficient.

    I have read the Act and I found it quite eye-watering, I was surprised how good it was, much to the credit of FOE and the Big Ask.

    Alex

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