Nearly half of the UK’s carbon footprint not included in 2050 net zero target, says report

Nearly half of the UK’s carbon footprint comes from emissions released overseas to satisfy UK-based consumption, according to a new report commissioned by WWF and carried out by the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds.

Products including clothing, processed foods and electronics imported into the UK are counted as the manufacturing country’s emissions, not the UK’s – although they would not have been produced were it not for UK demand.

The report found that these emissions account for 46% of the UK’s carbon footprint yet are not currently covered by national reporting or included in the UK’s net zero target – which requires the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

It says that between 1990 and 2016 emissions within the UK’s borders reduced by 41% but the consumption-based footprint only dropped 15%, mainly due to goods and services coming from abroad.

Dr Stephen Cornelius, Chief Climate Change Adviser at WWF, said: “Climate change is a global problem that needs a global solution. The UK has committed to net zero emissions and a credible plan to achieve this is one that tackles emissions based on what we consume, as well as what we produce.

“We need to be honest about our emissions – that means tackling those in the goods and services we buy in, not just the ones we make here. As an influential nation which has shown it can act as a global leader on climate change before, we have the ability to take responsibility for emissions that are down to UK demand alone.”

One of the report’s authors, Professor John Barrett from the University of Leeds, said: “Over the past 30 years, the UK’s emissions associated with our consumption have only declined by 15% at a time when they need to reduce to close to zero in the next 30 years. Increasingly, the impact of our consumption occurs outside the UK creating a situation where our emissions inside the country reduce while emissions associated with imports increase. It is essential that the UK commits to reducing its emissions both inside and outside the UK to adequately respond to the climate crisis.”

The report also found that six sectors contributed to almost half (46%) of the UK’s carbon footprint – a combination of domestic emissions and those from UK consumption emitted abroad: heating homes (9.7%), car fuel (8.6%), electricity (8%), construction (6.7%), agriculture (6.6%) and air travel (5.9%).  Only the largest three of these are associated with sectors which are expected to fully decarbonise domestically by 2050 under the UK Committee on Climate Change’s pathway to decarbonisation.