Author Archives: Robert Wilson

Aluminium: another example of Britain exporting its carbon emissions

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.

Religious extremism and the “religion of peace”

This meme seems to do a rather good job exposing the idea that religions, and one particular religion, are inherently peaceful.


Nuclear energy is “not low carbon”. Well, neither is solar. Let’s oppose both!

Jonathan Porritt has a new blog post claiming nuclear energy is not low carbon. As a result, even proponents of nuclear energy will have to accept it is not a solution to climate change.

As always, Porritt is simply cherry picking evidence from scientists who cherry pick evidence. Continue reading

The #thorium bots of Twitter

I am a perpetual narcissist and sadist, so I spend part of my time searching Twitter and Google to see if people are saying nice or nasty things about my blog or things I have written.

Because of this perverse behaviour I  now continually come across an assortment of bots who tweet about thorium. If you want to find these people simple search for “#thorium” on Twitter. And they seem to be busy with a quick throw away blog post of mine. Here are a few of these characters Continue reading

Private Eye on University Rankings

According to Private Eye there are some anomalies in the University Ranking systems…..


Vaclav Smil on Moore’s Law

Over at IEEE Spectrum, Vaclav Smil has an excellent piece demolishing the absurd idea that Moore’s Law is a good general guide for technological progress. I’m sure you’ve heard these ideas that there is a “Moore’s Law” for solar power.

Just recently, we were being told there is a Moore’s Law for fracking. Of course, there is nothing of the sort. But misguided techno-optimists continue to believe it is true, regardless of actual evidence.

As always, Smil provides numbers where others provide assertions
Continue reading

The sun came out in Scotland

After 30 minutes of relentless cloud, the sun appeared in Glasgow for the first time in 16 years, but some celestial object got in the way.

I even managed to pull out my telephoto lens to capture the moment.eclipse_1