I am not usually on the same page as Greta Thunberg but she is absolutely right when she accuses the UK of lying about cutting its carbon emissions by 44 per cent since 1990. I have heard ministers repeatedly make this claim on radio and television while hardly ever being challenged on it — so I am thankful that Thurnberg has done what others have failed to do.
The government’s 44 per cent claim is based on its official figures for territorial emissions — i.e. those physically spewed out within the UK. It excludes emissions from international shipping, aviation, the manufacture of goods elsewhere in the world for the benefit of UK consumers and the burning of biomass in UK power stations. While the latter activity involves rather a large amount of carbon emissions, the government ignores them using the conceit that the carbon being emitted was only fairly recently sucked out of the air by trees — mostly in North America. Simultaneously, the government is planning to plant many millions of trees in Britain and to count that as negative carbon emissions, contributing to Britain’s target of reaching net zero by 2050. It is a classic case of what the Prime Minister would call ‘cakeism’. It might otherwise be described as an accounting fiddle which, were it a real piece of accounting, would quickly land the secretary of state for the environment in the dock.
It is small wonder that the government prefers to use territorial emissions as its basis for the Climate Change Act. An alternative — and more honest — way to measure them is on a ‘consumption basis’: i.e. counting all emissions involved in providing goods and services for UK consumers, wherever in the world they are created. Britain’s territorial emissions have been falling at a far faster rate than its consumption emissions because of the decline of heavy industry. Every time a factory closes in Britain and we start importing goods instead we effectively export, or offshore, our emissions. This is a point which I have been making in The Spectator since as long ago as 2007.
A couple of years after that piece was published, the government did commit to publishing Britain’s consumption emissions. Over a decade later it has sort of published some figures, but you have to dig around somewhat to find them. The latest figures published by Defra refer to the period 1997-2018, during which, it says, greenhouse gas emissions associated with UK households fell by 26 per cent.
The World Wildlife Fund has produced its own more directly comparable estimates. Between 1990 and 2016, it says, territorial-based greenhouse gas emissions fell by 41 per cent and consumption-based emissions by 15 per cent. Britain has made significant strides in cutting carbon emissions in the electricity sector — with the last coal-fired power station due to close in 2024. But so long as we are importing large numbers of goods from China and other countries which are still using coal power, we are not going to get anywhere near genuine net zero emissions. Indeed, Defra estimates that carbon emissions associated with UK imports from China rose by a whacking 64 per cent between 1997 and 2018.
It is easy to see why the government should favour quoting figures for territorial emissions at us. If we can be made to believe that our carbon emissions have already tumbled by 44 per cent in the past 30 years it begins to look like a fairly straightforward matter to mop up the rest over the next 30 years. We might be persuaded to overlook the true costs of getting to net zero.
The biggest danger is that in the government's desperation to reach the 2050 target for net zero, ministers resort to driving even more of our industry and food production abroad. If emissions from those activities can be shunted onto other countries’ carbon accounts, the faster the UK will seem to move towards the net zero target. But of course it won’t be doing the planet any good — all that will have happened is that UK jobs will have been sacrificed in order to meet some arbitrary, bureaucratic target. If the government wants to avoid this it should stop trying to hoodwink us with territorial emissions and publish only figures of consumption-based emissions. That will almost certainly mean that we won’t get anywhere near net zero by 2050 — but it would be a lot more honest.