Britain’s Emissions Exported says Chief Scientist – really?


A news story today apparently sent some in Whitehall into a bit of a tail spin – according to the BBC:

Professor David MacKay told the BBC that reductions in carbon dioxide emissions since 1990 are “an illusion”. “Our energy footprint has decreased over the last few decades and that’s largely because we’ve exported our industry,” he said.

Now is it just me but this sounds just a little illogical. If we are going to count our imports then we have to subtract our exports from our carbon footprint. And heavily exporting countries like China, Japan and Germany would suddenly see huge reductions in their carbon footprints, purely through an accounting change.

Does it really make sense to say China isn’t rapidly increasing their emissions because most of the stuff they produce is exported? On that logic it would be OK for them to build the 500 coal fired power stations they are planning, because they could blame everyone else for buying the goods produced from this power.

For good or ill the unit of analysis for emissions is countries and the only thing that makes sense is to count the emissions, and only the emissions, produced within their borders. Or am I missing something? Prof. Mackay might have been misquoted or misunderstood, but if so he should put the record straight.

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About Prof. Colin Talbot

Professor of Government (Emeritus). Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
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2 Responses to Britain’s Emissions Exported says Chief Scientist – really?

  1. Nigel Boor says:

    The simple answer to the question is: Yes.

    If all countries were to give a full accounting of their carbon consumption then we would see the true picture and the effects of our consumer driven lifestyles would be more apparent.

    We can’t sit smugly in within our borders pointing fingers at the bad guys when they are supplying our demands. Especially since we export manufacturing to these countries to exploit low labour costs and less stringent safety laws.

  2. Colin Talbot says:

    Nigel – I think you missed my point.

    There are two scientifically valid ways to measure a countries carbon footprint. Let’s call them a Carbon Account (CA) and a Net Carbon Account (NCA).

    CA = all carbon emissions actually made within the territory.

    NCA would therefore equal all carbon emissions actually made within the territory, plus the carbon emissions produced by imports and minus the carbon emissions caused by exports. If you only included imports and not exports then you would be double counting.

    Scientifically I can’t see much to choose between CA and NCA, there just different ways of accounting for the same actual things.

    Politically, there is an advantage to using NCA in a net importing country (Britain) – showing our ‘real’ carbon generation. But conversely it would be politically disadvantageous to use it in net exporting countries – who could then simply blame the people who bought their goods for their emissions.

    What you certainly shouldn’t do, from a scientific point of view, is try and have it both ways – counting imports when it suits you but not exports. That’s why I thought the reported comments of the Chief Scientist were wrong – they were, as reported, political and definitely not scientific. They were bad science – and probably bad politics too, but that is a separate issue.

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