The Climate Change Act of 2008 commits the UK to reducing greenhouse gas by 80% from their 1990 levels by the year 2050. This is a pretty drastic statement of ambition and you might be wondering how we are doing now that we are 2 years into the 42 years set to achieve this. If you look up the Emissions Targets web page of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and click around and you will be able to download data to allow you to plot a graph like the one at the top of the page. And hey! we are pretty much on target! Looking at this you could feel proud of our National Achievement. You might wonder just exactly what we did to achieve this since you didn’t remember anything other than being irritated by compact fluorescent light bulbs, but then again maybe that’s all that it takes?
Alas the situation is not so rosy. The first clue comes when we look at UK electricity consumption (sorry: second-hand source). This has just gone up by 20% since 1990!
Now the additional electricity we are using has not resulted in too much additional carbon emissions because since 1990 we have switched off a large number of coal-fired power stations and brought on-line a large number of gas-fired stations. Gas-fired stations emit about half the carbon dioxide of an equivalent coal-fired station. However one important cause of the downward trend was recently identified by the esteemed Robert Watson in a BBC story. He pointed out simply that we have exported the manufacturing of a vast fraction of our national requirements to China. Individually this has saved us all money. It has also ‘saved’ us carbon, since the emissions associated with the manufacture of these goods are now associated with China, even though it is we who consume them! And additionally, the goods now have to be shipped half-way around the world.
The article just brought home to me how complex the problem of reducing emissions is. Although it may seem impossible to make progress when complexities such as attribution of emissions to particular countries arises, the first step is simply to openly and honestly account for the carbon emissions as they are now. Once we are clear about what is actually happening, then I have confidence that it will become possible to imagine the next step. But without clarity on the emission data, no progress is possible.