By John Barrett

While there have been a number of papers that calculate consumption-based GHG emissions, we were keen to present a paper [now published in Climate Policy Journal, Vol. 13, issue 4] that documents its application to climate policy, recognising the uncertainty in the calculations and presenting the future research challenges. In this blog I’ve mapped out the “policy journey” of consumption-based emissions in the UK. The journey began in 2005 with initial estimates of the UK’s consumption based emissions right up until 2013 with consumption-based emissions now being a headline indicator for the UK Government with a number of serious policy options being considered.

One of the first calculations of the UK’s consumption-based emissions were in 2005 in a publication by Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) with WWF-UK using a very simplistic model to understand the emissions embodied in traded goods and services. A year later Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) commissioned SEI to undertake a study to produce a time series of the UK’s consumption based emissions. When it came to publishing these results it met considerable opposition from politicians and senior civil servants resulting in a significant delay in the release of the data.  This did not come as a major surprise when considering the findings – consumption emissions up 20% from 1990 and territorial emissions down by 20% over the same period. Clearly the analysis questioned conventional wisdom on the success of climate policy in the UK and resulted in considerable media attention. In 2007 the UK government response was one of defence, failing to see additional data on the UK’s emissions as an opportunity.  The paper attempts to demonstrate that there are a range of international and domestic climate policy options that become credible and more visible when viewing it from a consumption perspective.

The research continued at the University of Leeds with support from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) where the models became increasingly sophisticated and detailed and more examples of the application to policy were undertaken resulting in numerous academic and policy publications.

In 2011 DEFRA commissioned Leeds to provide a consumption-based emissions official indicator for the UK government. This represented 6 years of continual effort for a consumption based approach to be recognised in climate policy; however it did not stop there!  The Energy and Climate Change Select Committee decided to investigate consumption based emissions and advise the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) on the position that they should take. The report strongly recommended that the UK government monitor these emissions and take an international lead in forming an appropriate response. This then led to a detailed study by the committee on climate change. The study recognised the complementary nature of consumption and territorial based emissions and started to develop a range a potential policy responses that may be required if emissions embodied in imports failed to reduce in the coming years.

We understand that technology development takes some time and we develop learning curves to try and predict this, however clearly there is an additional learning curve associated with policy development.  It has taken 8 years to go from the first estimates to serious consideration by the Committee on Climate Change. Future scenarios of climate mitigation clearly need to recognise the inertia in the policy process.

The journey of consumption based emissions was never going to be an easy one. I think the predominant reason for this is that it highlights the difficult relationship between emissions and economic growth and the serious lack of decoupling between them. We still don’t have a definitive answer on how exponential economic growth will be achieved in a carbon constrained world.

By John Barrett.

His full article on consumption-based accounting is published as: John Barrett, Glen Peters, Thomas Wiedmann, Kate Scott, Manfred Lenzen, Katy Roelich & Corinne Le Quéré (2013), Consumption-based GHG emission accounting: a UK case study.  Climate Policy Journal, vol. 13, Issue 4, pages 451-470