How much is the average UK carbon footprint?

Internet research turns up a confusing range of answers. According to Ovo Energy, the average carbon footprint for UK citizens is 6.7 tonnes per year. Our World in Data has an interactive graph that gives the 2020 figure as 4.85 tonnes. And Pawprint says it’s an astounding 12.7 tonnes CO2e (the “e” at the end stands for “equivalent”, and means that emissions of other gases like methane and CFCs are taken into account). Which of these, if any, is right?

Some of these differences can be explained by minor differences in methods of measurement. But Pawprint’s figure is nearly three times Our World in Data’s. Surely this discrepancy is not just down to a difference in methods of measurement? It’s not, and the answer is very clearly and helpfully explained in the World Wildlife Fund’s Carbon Footprint Analysis Report, published in March 2020.

The key difference is between the emissions we produce in this country, our “Territorial Emissions”, and the emissions which result, in this country and elsewhere, from producing goods for us to consume. These are our “Consumption-Based Emissions”. There is a third category, “Production Emissions”, which includes things we produce here and in other countries. The following graph, taken from the WWF report, shows the progress of the three different emissions totals over the period 1990 to 2016.

Dividing the totals by the UK population (57.25 million in 1990, 65.6 million in 2020), we get the average personal carbon footprint, shown in the following table.

Territorial Emissions13.977.32
Production Emissions15.028.84
Consumption Emissions16.5912.2
Average UK carbon footprint calculated in three different ways

The UK government, naturally, prefers to talk about territorial emissions. For one thing, they are a lot less than consumption emissions, so make us look better. For another, they are coming down a lot faster than our consumption emissions: the figures in the table above show that in the period 1990-2016, our production-based footprint dropped by 48%, versus 26% for our consumption-based footprint. That too makes us, and the government, look better.

The difference between Consumption Emissions and Territorial Emissions is “Embedded Emissions” — CO2 emitted abroad making goods that we import. The contribution of Embedded Emissions to the average UK footprint was 2.62 tonnes in 1990 and 4.88 tonnes in 2016. It is going up rather than down! How can government deal with this? Isn’t it just down to individual consumption choices? To some extent it is. But one reason why Embedded Emissions are going up is that it is cheaper to produce goods abroad, where there is less effort to reduce emissions than at home. To remedy this, governments can impose a “carbon border adjustment” — tax the import of goods produced in climate-unfriendly ways.

Which figure is a better estimate of our carbon footprint? Each person’s carbon footprint is a measure of how much carbon (or more precisely CO2e) we are personally responsible for. Where the emissions take place is not really relevant. We shouldn’t attribute to other countries the carbon emitted through the manufacture of goods that we buy. Really it is us who are responsible for those emissions. If we didn’t want the goods, they wouldn’t be manufactured. It is possible that if we made them ourselves, we might do it less carbon-intensively, for example by powering our factories by renewables rather than coal. So if you are desperate to reduce your estimate of your carbon footprint, you could knock off a tonne or so and blame it on other people’s outdated manufacturing processes. But the truth is that honestly counted, the average UK carbon footprint is above 12 tonnes. The world average is about 4.7 tonnes. We have a long way to go.

(In case you are wondering which category of emissions this figure of 4.7 tonnes measures, the answer is that at the global level, the figures for consumption emissions and production emissions are, of course, the same.)

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