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HomeNewsGlobal warming: the UK’s expensive and futile gesture politics – Part 1

Global warming: the UK’s expensive and futile gesture politics – Part 1


This the first of three articles we are publishing on the absurdities of the UK’s climate change policy researched and written for The Conservative Woman by leading economist Ruth Lea.

MUCH has already been written on the Government’s recent commitment to a ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions target by 2050 following the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation as our ‘contribution to stopping global warming’.

Doubtless, much more will be written. The Chancellor has warned of the costs, suggesting such a policy could cost £1trillion.

Others have argued this is an underestimate. But, putting aside the economics, the most obvious question is whether adopting this policy will actually have much impact on man-made global GHG emissions. And this is irrespective of the view you take about the link between GHG emissions and climate change. Indeed, it risks just being a very expensive gesture, as the major emitters appear to have little intention of following our heroic example. It has not gone unobserved that, whilst we have committed to the 2008 Climate Change Act which insisted emissions should be 80 per cent lower in 2050 than in 1990, few countries have followed our ‘lead’. It is most improbable that they will follow our ‘lead’ now. Assuming this is the case, the Government’s ‘net zero’ policy will have a minuscule impact on global GHG emissions. Our ‘net zero’ politicians are pursuing a quasi-unilateral, low-carbon, high-cost, fantasy.

The UK responsible for 1.1% of CO2 emissions in 2016

It is no secret that the UK is now a minor GHG emitter but, in the absence of a rational debate on our ‘contribution’ to GHG emissions, this point needs to be repeated over and over again. The direct impact of UK’s decarbonising ‘green’ credentials on world emissions must be kept in perspective. We have all but shrunk into irrelevance as a GHG-emitting nation.

The most readily available data relevant to this debate are from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which provides timely figures on carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion. CO2 emissions are the most important of the greenhouse gas emissions. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, CO2 accounts for around three quarters of total GHG emissions, whilst methane accounts for around 15 per cent and other gases, including nitrous oxide, for the remaining 10 per cent. 

Chart 1a shows that the UK, the 16th greatest emitter in 2016, accounted for just 1.1 per cent of CO2 emissions, having fallen from 2.7 per cent in 1990. Our emissions were dwarfed by China, which contributed over a quarter, the USA (still 15 per cent, despite a drop in share) and India.

Chart 1b looks at the actual volumes of CO2 emitted (in million tonnes, MtCO2). The UK accounted for 371million tonnes in 2016, down from 550million in 1990. Even if Britain’s economy were to be completely decarbonised by 2050 the saving in global emissions, other things being equal, would therefore be less than 400million tonnes. World emissions rose from 20,510million tonnes in 1990 to 32,316million tonnes in 2016, an annual average increase of 454million tonnes, greater than our 2016 total. Much of the global increase in emissions came from China, where they rose by 6,957million tonnes over 26 years, or an annual average increase of 268million tonnes, over 70 per cent of our 2016 total. Given the likelihood that global emissions will continue to rise, our contribution to the diminution of global emissions will be more than offset by activities elsewhere, almost certainly many times over.

Chart 1a CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, top 16 emitters (ranked in 2016), % of global total, 1990 & 2016

Chart 1b CO2 emissions from fuel combustion (MtCO2), top 16 emitters (ranked in 2016), 1990 & 2016

Sources: (i) International Energy Agency (IEA), Atlas of energy; (ii) IEA, ‘Key world energy statistics’, 2018. MtCO2= million tonnes CO2.

Chart 2 shows the change in their CO2 emissions between 1990 and 2016 for the top 16 emitters (ranked as in 2016), as well as the global total. Over this period global emissions rose by nearly 60 per cent, driven in particular by threefold increases in China’s and India’s emissions. With the exception of Russia, where the large fall in share reflects widespread industrial closures after the collapse of the USSR, the UK’s cuts were proportionately the largest of the featured economies, followed by Germany.

Chart 2 CO2 emissions, % changes, top 16 emitters, 1990-2016

Sources: (i) International Energy Agency (IEA), Atlas of energy; (ii) IEA, ‘Key world energy statistics’, 2018.


‘Outsourced’ CO2 emissions

Traditional national inventories of CO2 emissions do not, of course, include emissions associated with imported goods. In other words, they do not include emissions ‘outsourced’ by importing countries to exporting countries. They consider only emissions that occur within the borders of individual countries and the ‘responsibility’ for emissions associated with trade remains with the exporting nation. Whilst this approach has the benefit of being straightforward, it arguably ‘penalises’ countries for emissions associated with goods that they do not consume domestically, but export.

One fairly recent study which estimated the emissions associated with trade was released by Carbon Brief, which looked at the data for 2014, two years before the IEA data quoted above, but the conclusions for 2014 are almost certain to be valid for 2016.

This study concluded that the largest ‘outsourcers’ were the US (352million tonnes), followed by Japan (180million) and the UK (158million). At the other end of the scale, the countries held to account for CO2 emissions of exported goods included China (1,369million tonnes), followed by Russia (257million) and India (195million).

Carbon Brief estimated that the UK’s domestically generated CO2 emissions fell by around 27 per cent between 1990 and 2014 (the IEA figure for UK emissions in 2014 was 408million tonnes, so this figure is in the right ‘ball park’). Allowing for the outsourced emissions, the decrease between 1990 and 2014 fell to just 11 per cent.

Suffice to say, the UK’s zeal in clamping down on domestic emissions merely risks the raising of electricity prices, damaging UK industry’s international competitiveness and transferring economic activity from the UK to overseas exporters. Indeed, it is more than plausible that this has already occurred. 

CO2 emissions are still rising and can be expected to continue rising

The IEA data quoted above relate to 2016, but some later data are now available. BP, for example, recently released data for 2018, which showed that global energy demand grew by 2.9 per cent in the year and carbon emissions grew by 2.0 per cent, faster than at any time since 2010-2011. 

They said that their report highlighted ‘the growing divergence between demands for action on climate change and the actual pace of progress on reducing carbon emissions’. Indeed it does. Moreover, coal consumption and production increased at a faster rate than at any time in past five years, driven by India and China. 

Global CO2 emissions were estimated to have risen by 645million tonnes in 2018, 1.75 times the UK’s total of 370million tonnes in 2016. 

BP’s findings confirm the doubts expressed over the efficacy of the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference held in Paris in curbing global emissions. Before the conference, participating countries were asked to submit their ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs) covering their energy policies and emissions expectations for the next 15 years (to 2030). As reported by Christopher Booker, these INDCs showed that almost all of the high emitting ‘developing’ economies expected to raise their CO2 emissions substantially by 2030. 

Both China and India, for example, were intending to build large numbers of coal-fired power stations, resulting in a 100 per cent increase in China’s emissions by 2030 and a 200 per cent increase in India’s emissions. The INDCs suggested that global emissions could be 50 per cent higher in 2030 than in 2013. This certainly puts our contributions in perspective.

The BP report is most timely. It really does confirm that China and India are pushing ahead with coal and global emissions are rising. Moreover, emissions can be expected to continue rising, despite our government’s determination to ‘decarbonise’ the British economy.

Tomorrow Ruth Lea will continue her searching analysis of the UK’s absurd climate change policy.

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Ruth Lea
Ruth Lea
Ruth Lea CBE is economic adviser at the Arbuthnot Banking Group

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