Carbon food fight

A NEW report suggests the UK is importing vast amounts of high-carbon products, including food.


Do you want the good news or the bad news? The good news is that carbon emissions from UK production have fallen by 20% in the past two decades (that’s probably where politicians hoped the Committee on Climate Change’s latest report ended). The bad is that these reductions have been more than offset by the emissions the country has imported. In other words, as incomes have grown and manufacturing has shifted to other countries the UK’s contribution to climate change has actually increased. The UK is now the second-highest “emissions importer” in the world, with each individual responsible for double the imported emissions of someone in Germany, which has kept its domestic manufacturing base.


Lord Deben, the chair of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), said the size of the UK’s footprint was “worrying” and highlighted the importance of a global deal on climate change. The Friends of the Earth energy campaigner, Guy Shrubsole, said it “reveals the truth behind attempts to blame countries like China for climate change, when a significant proportion of their emissions are produced in order to maintain our quality of life.”


Food has played a significant role in the UK’s rising emissions. The UK is a net importer of many foods and emissions from the production of imports are, again, not reflected in UK inventories. Previous analyses indicate that UK agriculture, fertiliser production, and livestock agriculture in nearby countries for export to the UK are responsible for the emission of about 62m tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, or about a tenth of emissions attributed to the UK in inventories. In its “How Low” report on food consumption, WWF UK estimated that the UK food system plays a “far greater” role in global greenhouse gas emissions than that indicated by UK emissions attributable to UK agriculture.


Accounting for global emissions alone is much easier and paints a better picture. It is also how international rules are set out. However, as scientists like those at the Stockholm Environment Institute have alluded to, imported emissions need to be dealt with and not just monitored. The government currently assumes that other countries will take responsibility, but the failures at global climate talks have spotlighted the gulf in policies and commitments across the world.


The CCC provides a number of options to help cut imported emissions, including a new global deal on climate change to follow the Kyoto agreement. However, there are other options, such as a carbon tax on imports and refunds for exporters. The use of carbon labels could also be extended, said the CCC, with evidence from the labelling of food aimed at improving health suggesting “there can be a positive impact on consumer choices”. However, consumers have found carbon labels “difficult to grasp”, the report concludes, so perhaps “there is benefit in labelling the carbon footprint of a targeted range of products which are carbon- intensive and where low-carbon alternatives are available”.