Aluminium: another example of Britain exporting its carbon emissions

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More and more research is making it clear that a large amount of Britain’s CO2 emissions are being exported to other countries. Britain used to be the workshop of the world; today it is China.

Britain keeps consuming stuff, but makes less and less of it. This simple fact should be at the centre of debates over decarbonisation in Britain, but it is not.

The latest piece of analysis comes from a group at the University of Leeds, covered by the BBC here. Put simply, they compared Britain’s territorial emissions – these are Britain’s official emissions – with its consumption based emissions. One covers the fossil fuels we burn ourselves, the other is for the fossil fuels for our consumption.

The graph below from the Leeds research group is a useful visualization. It compares the changes in territorial and consumption emissions since 1990:

uk_emissionsThe problem here, of course, is that territorial emissions have dropped much more than consumption emissions. The official decline in emissions is, in part, an illusion.

Britain is simply exporting a lot of its emissions elsewhere. This is relatively well established, and first came to prominence in Britain with the comments in 2009 of Dieter Helm and David MacKay. Since then, Helm has expanded on the problem in  his book The Carbon Crunch,  a persuasive critique of British and European energy policy.

If you aren’t convinced this is a real issue, or don’t have the time – we are all busy – to read the Leeds report or some of the key academic research (e.g. Davis et al. 2011), simply consider the example of aluminium.

Aluminium is once of the most fundamental materials in modern civilization. Planes, cars, cans of Coke, you name it, are very reliant on the availability of aluminium. As far as carbon emissions go, aluminium is one of the most important materials (see the book Sustainable Materials With Both Eyes Open).

However, Britain’s production of aluminium has collapsed.

Excellent historical data for primary aluminium production is available from the United States Geological Survey. These statistics tell a simple story: Britain’s primary aluminium production is now approximately 10% of what it was when production peaked in the mid-2000s.

This collapse in production was a result of two things: the closure in 2009 of the Anglesey smelter and then the Lynemouth smelter in 2012. However, this aluminium production is clearly still happening elsewhere. All Britain has done is de-industrialize further and export more of its emissions.

Furthermore, Britain now produces less aluminium per capita than any developed country other than Japan.

Here is a plot comparing Britain’s per capita production of aluminium with other developed economies:


As you can see, Britain is far behind everywhere. Around a decade ago Britain was a typical developed economy; today, we produce a tenth of what Germany and America produce.

The story, then, is that you should be skeptical of what official carbon emissions inventories are telling you.

And in case you are wondering, the figure for Iceland is not a mistake. It does produce this much aluminium per capita. Despite having a population of only 320,000 people, Iceland is one of the 10 biggest producers of aluminium. In fact, this astoundingly high per capita production of aluminium is the main reason Iceland likely consumes more energy per capita than any country on earth.

Note on statistics

Statistics for aluminium production in most countries are available from the USGS website here. I have used these, along with population data from Gapminder, and produced the figures using ggplot2 in R.


2 thoughts on “Aluminium: another example of Britain exporting its carbon emissions

    Samuel Leuenberger said:
    March 23, 2015 at 9:19 am

    Although your point is sensible here, picking aluminum is a bad example of UK exporting it’s Carbon Footprint.
    Iceland has a very good profile to produce Al given its reliance on cheap Geothermal power (sometimes living on a volcano helps). Therefore closing a smelter in the UK is probably a good environmental choice if it is relocated in a country like Iceland or even Norway or France who have a far better carbon footprint for their electricity generation than UK.


      Robert Wilson said:
      March 23, 2015 at 9:28 am


      The issue is the carbon footprint of the margin globally. I don’t think Iceland is on for margin. Most analysts seem to think it is Chinese producers. So, it is likely that a lot or most of this lost production has effectively been replaced by increased Chinese production.


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