What is your country’s record on climate mitigation?

Analysing ‘Almost Sufficient’ assessment

Ref. https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/uk/

Carbon/greenhouse gas accounting : What are we really counting ?

Only when the sum of a country’s anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, whether through production (under the territorial accounting method) or consumption, including international aviation or shipping, processing or distribution, fossil fuel or other mineral extraction, export or import that constitutes the supply or demand of our supply chains-including the building and agriculture sectors, and respective funding or investment- is declared, do we have a true and comprehensive picture of a country’s greenhouse gas footprint and the emissions mitigation it may be credited for…

The Paris Agreement utilises the  global mean temperature rise as the metric of its ‘objective’ rather than a ‘Paris compliant global budget’. The significance of this global mean temperature rise (compared to pre-industrial levels) is that atmospheric heating has a causal relationship to the adverse effects on the climate and the carbon cycle. The carbon cycle is one of three of Earth’s biogeochemical cycles -along with the nitrogen and water cycles -that sustain an hospitable planetary environment for life to survive and thrive. The incontrovertible evidence is that human activity has artificially pushed the carbon cycle out of sync to breach planetary sustainable boundaries; indeed, as human activity is already causing ecosystem breakdown that is jeopardising life support systems, this means that mitigation and adaptation must refer to the full context of human-caused biosphere pollution -not just piecemeal factors that allow for the greenwash-soaked  business -as- usual scenarios.

However, currently, according to current international convention on climate pollution- consistent across international treaties such as in the The Paris Agreementproduction-based ‘territorial emissions-based accounting is utilised. It is in the application of this method of emissions’ allocation that signatory countries to the Paris Agreement agree their Nationally Determined Contributions(NDCs) to plan, determine and report on how they would contribute to limiting the increase in global mean temperature to  1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial era levels. NDCs embody the explicit mitigation and adaptation national plans and should be guided by the principles laid down in the Paris Agreement. It must be noted that NDCs remain legally unbinding- only the reporting of them to the UNFCCC is enshrined in international law. 

However, as the Minority World (advanced economies) such as the UK, have experienced profound decoupling between GDP and territorial emissions, it has become clear that a pattern of outsourcing the pollution of our consumption has allowed countries such as the UK unfair exemptions in its Paris Agreement obligations. 

There has been mention in the CCC 2020 Progress Report to Parliament to –

Continue to monitor consumption emissions. These are important to ensure that action to decarbonise UK-based activities does not result in emissions moving offshore and to track progress in decarbonisation of imports to the UK, which in turn can inform future policy (e.g. border carbon adjustments). Further to this, experts in the field have become increasingly vocal in proposing practicable emissions accounting methods premised on the user pays principle, which calls upon the (final) user of natural capital to compensate for loss of such natural capital (UN, 1997). 

It is on this principle that there is a logical and moral argument at COP26 to consolidate this paradigm shift. In calling for the UK to ‘reduce its (anthropogenic) overall contributions to greenhouse house gas emissions’ by including in its set of principles, the adoption of consumption based emissions accounting, the UK Government would  be attributed with the COP26 legacy of taking unprecedented and groundbreaking measures in its climate legislation -a natural development in the life cycle of the UK 2008 Climate Change Act. 

Referring to the CCC 2020 Progress Report to Parliament, the graphs below demonstrate how essential it is that this paradigm shift is made and applied in practice. The data in Fig.1. shows the UK consumption greenhouse gas emissions and concurrent UK territorial greenhouse gas emissions and in Fig.2, emission reductions per industrial sector. 


NB ‘Greenhouse Gas Emissions’ are defined as any emissions which the IPCC and general scientific consensus have defined as ‘greenhouse gases’- this includes carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons etc. 


According to Our World Data, the UK is a net importer meaning that it imports more CO2 embedded in goods than it exports. On the interactive graph the UK, for 2018, has a value of 42.1% meaning its net import of CO2 is equivalent to 42.1% of its domestic emissions. 

The graph below illustrates Production vs. consumption-based CO₂ emissions per capita, United Kingdom

Annual consumption-based emissions are domestic emissions adjusted for trade. If a country imports goods the CO₂ emissions needed to produce such goods are added to its domestic emissions; if it exports goods then this is subtracted.

So, in summary, to meet the UN’s  SDGs and honour the principles of CBDR-RC-first formalised at the UNFCCC’s 1992 Rio Earth Summit then- 

Minority World/advanced economy net-importer countries of embodied emissions, such as the UK, must  adopt the paradigm shift  from territorial/production-based carbon dioxide  emissions accounting – to accounting of a country’s carbon footprint (and, at a later stage, greenhouse gas footprint to account for  agriculture) -i.e. consumption-based emissions accounting  that takes stock of the embedded emissions in the outsourced manufactured goods and services that we import to consume to furnish our lifestyles. Many Minority World advanced economies, such as the UK, are net importers and omit the costs of their outsized carbon footprint, relative to the global average emissions’ tread.

Conversely, were Minority World net importers to account for their higher consumption-based emissions in the calculations of their legally-bound carbon budget restrictions, then there would be every incentive for these countries to work collaboratively with net-carbon producers to reduce the embedded emissions in these commodity markets. The incentives for decarbonised  global trade and environmental integrity, such as the advocacy of  sustainable food supplies chains, would necessitate a remapping of more equitable financial flows circulating among advanced economies, emerging economies and low income countries. 

Unless there is an agreement on a systemic shift in allocating emissions responsibility, then double-accounting of emissions will occur.

Deciphering a meaningful ‘’net zero’’.

A further concern among climate policy researchers is in the conflation of the carbon mitigation methodology– i.e. of source carbon reductions vs application of prospective carbon negative technologies of carbon mitigation, both in international and national policy, whereby the methodology is expediently aggregated. The implications of this, according Willis et al.2019 is that treating negative emissions and emissions reductions as entirely fungible, is playing out in current climate politics. In their paper, they argue that climate target setting– and in the context of the Paris Agreement this would be in respect to Nationally Determined Contributions – must call for the explicit separation of emissions reductions from negative emissions in both their objectives and their timeframes. 

The significance of a ‘1.5C world’ and the 2050 date –

To put the planetary crisis in context, according to the publication of the AR6, the world can emit around 460bn tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) – or just 11.5 years of current (2020) emissions – after 1 January 2021 before being committed to 1.5C – global carbon budget years remaining (Carbon Brief, Aug 2021). The majority of advanced economies-including the UK – that have signed up to the Paris Agreement pledges have set a net zero target of no later than 2050 – a breach of 19 years beyond the 1.5C global carbon budget. 

The significance of limiting global mean temperatures increase to 1.5C relative to 1850-1900s (with a  temporary overshoot) is illustrated in the IPCC AR6 Summary for Policymakers

The Minority World accounting for its historical emissions  debt.

According to the ‘Paris Agreement’ treaty, while countries are formally equal in the United Nations (UN) climate negotiations, their contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, development needs, and vulnerability to global climate heating and resources and capacity to cope with climate mitigation and adaptation, vary greatly. Currently the UK’s CCC’s carbon budget corresponds to a  current allowance aligned/consistent to a rate of emissions consistent with a reduction for a 50% chance of limiting mean global temperature rise to 1.5C by 2050. 

Whilst the UNFCCC’s s Common but Differentiated Responsibilities-and Respective Capabilities(CBDR-RC) enshrined in the Paris Agreement, doesn’t explicitly call for developed countries’ -notably the UK, as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, to account for ‘historical emissions’, it is interesting to note, according to a Carbon Brief Report – large post-colonial European nations, such as Germany and the UK, account for 4% and 3% of the global total, respectively, not including overseas emissions under colonial rule.To this end, there is a moral argument that the UK’s emissions’ mitigation responsibility must be  accounted for by its call to the UK Government and CCC to adopt an emissions‘ pathway at a rate consistent with at least a 66% chance of  limiting global mean temperature increase to 1.5C compared to pre-industrial levels. This ‘pathway’ is what the IPCC, in its 2018 SR-15 Report, have identified as the most ambitious plausible pathway available to policymakers. 

However, the majority of developed countries -such as the UK – has adopted an emissions’ mitigation pathway at a rate consistent with only a 50% chance of limiting  global mean temperature increase to 1.5C on the basis of territorial emissions accounting-i.e.  accounts for emissions within the UK but excludes emissions emitted in international territory, international aviation and shipping which are only reported as a memo and not allocated to individual countries. for . According to UK Gov. DEFRA 2021 revised report

In 2019, emissions in the UK of the basket of seven greenhouse gases covered by the KyotoProtocol were estimated to be 454.8 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e), a decrease of 2.8% compared to the 2018 figure of 468.1 million tonnes. Greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 are estimated to be 43.8% lower than they were in 1990. 

When broken down by gas, UK emissions are dominated by carbon dioxide, which is estimated to have accounted for about 80% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK in 2019. Weighted by global warming potential, methane accounted for about 12% of UK emissions and nitrous oxide for about 5% of emissions in 2019. Fluorinated gases accounted for the remainder, around 3%. Emissions of CO2 have reduced by 40.0% (around 243 MtCO2) since 1990 to 365.1 MtCO2 in 2019, mainly due to decreases in emissions from power stations.

In summary then, as the UK Government is about to co-preside over COP26 in a month’s time, it is behoven to them, in their co-presidency  with Italy, to demonstrate robust  leadership through legislative example, not mere rhetoric and ceremonial pledge-making. The facts are unequivocal – the UK is a net importer of emissions as a consequence of a switch from a carbon-intensive manufacturing-based to a service-focused economy. In the UK, on average between 1970-1986, consumption-based emissions were only 0.2% higher than territorial-based emissions. Post 1986, the UK shifted to a less carbon-intensive services’ economy; by 2007, UK  consumption-based emissions reached their peak and were 37% higher than UK territorial emissions. Since 2008, both UK territorial and consumption-based emissions have since declined. However, the UK has one of the highest per head net imports of C02 emissions (1992- C02 emissions per head: 1.7 tonnes compared to 2007- 5.1 tonnes)(Ref. UK Govt. ONS). Carbon Brief estimates that consumption-based C02 emissions fell by around 21% over the past decade, therefore we can estimate that the UK consumption-based C02 emissions stand at 4.3 tonnes per head.

NHM Oct 2021