West is outsourcing, not reducing emissions

Oct 02, 2009 02:00 AM

by Cath Everett

The UK's apparent reduction in carbon emissions since 1990 is merely an "illusion", because manufacturing has been outsourced to developing countries, according to the UK government's new chief energy scientist. Professor David MacKay said the presence of these "embedded" greenhouse gas emissions means that the UK has probably generated twice the levels suggested by official figures.
His comments are likely to increase the pressure on the UK government to improve its stance on emissions cuts at the forthcoming climate change talks in Copenhagen in December.

Mackay, who started working for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, pointed to research from Dieter Helm at Oxford University, which indicates that half of the UK's energy footprint is located overseas in countries such as China and India. As a result, rather than falling by 15 % since 1990 as is generally cited, emissions have risen in real terms by more like 19 %.
But such figures are optimistic given that 1990 represented a peak in domestic British coal-burning activity and the industry was subsequently shut down due to factors unconnected with environmental concerns. Such dynamics are also true of other European countries and the US.

Helm said in his study: "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. Their appropriate emissions reduction targets will have to be based on the consumption of goods that cause those emissions in the first place."
Ultimately this means that the true scale of emission reduction activity that needs to be taken by the UK and other Western nations will be much higher than is currently thought. And the impact of tackling the issue on economic growth and living standards will also have to be much more severe than it has so far been believed.

In a dig at climate-policy sceptics, MacKay also pointed out that if historical per capita carbon emissions were taken into consideration, the UK was also among the top three world polluters alongside the US and Germany -- whether it is currently responsible for only 2 % of current global emissions today or not.
In 1910, the UK burned the same amount of carbon per capita that the US does today, he said, which meant that the country had an "ethical duty" to take the lead and demonstrate that it was possible for a developed country to significantly decarbonise its economy.

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