No… UK CO2 emissions are not declining

We have been peppered this week by the headline, “Britain has first coal-free week in over a century.” This storyline is fake news.

On a superficial level, the headline may very well be true since Britain only has a handful of coal plants still operating. Its baseload power is mostly now provided by nuclear and natural gas plants. On windy days during mild seasons (i.e., spring and fall), it’s quite possible that the low level of UK coal power can be replaced by windmills. But that is not the real story, here.

The larger implication is that UK is making progress in cutting CO2 emissions. This is entirely false.

World Bank data shows that per capita CO2 emissions in the UK have dropped from about 11 metric tons in 1960 to about 6.5 tons in the present.

The World Bank data seems to bolster the notion that it is possible to cut CO2 emissions and still have an economy. But there is more to the story.

Consider the report “Closing Europe’s Carbon Loophole” (Web | PDF) published last fall by the NGO Climateworks.

The message of the Climateworks report is that EU nations aren’t cutting emissions so much as they are exporting or outsourcing them to places like China. That is, the UK no longer manufactures its own consumer goods — it imports them from China, where the manufacturing emissions occur. If anything, emissions are actually increasing in this process since they must be shipped from China back to the UK.

According to the report, UK imports are worth 5.7 metric tons on a per capita basis.

Adding the World Bank per capita carbon footprint of the UK (6.5 tons) to the carbon footprint of UK imports (5.7 tons), the actual per capita carbon footprint of the UK is 12.1 tons — which is about 10% greater than the 1960 per capita carbon footprint of the UK of 11 tons. And this increase in per capita footprint remains despite all the improvements in efficiency made over the past 60 years.

So yes, coal can be replaced by combinations of gas, nuclear and wind — but the notion that emissions are actually being cut is fake news.

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