Britain now G7's biggest net importer of CO2 emissions per capita, says ONS

Richard Partington Economics correspondent
Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Britain has contributed to the global climate emergency by outsourcing its carbon emissions to developing nations, according to official figures, despite managing to weaken the domestic link between fossil fuels and economic growth.

The Office for National Statistics said the UK had become the biggest net importer of carbon dioxide emissions per capita in the G7 group of wealthy nations – outstripping the US and Japan – as a result of buying goods manufactured abroad.

The ONS warned that Britain had increased its net imports of CO2 emissions per capita from 1.7 tonnes in 1992 to 5.1 tonnes in 2007, offsetting domestic progress on shifting the UK economy away from fossil fuels.

According to the ONS study, China was the biggest single source of Britain’s imported emissions, as the UK ramped up purchases of goods such as mobile phones made in the Asian country, where labour costs are lower and pollution regulations less stringent. The second biggest contributor to imported emissions was the EU, followed by the US.

The ONS warned that environmental damage could not be stopped by nation’s simply relocating the production of goods from advanced to developing nations.

Related: Revealed: the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions

Amina Syed, senior economist at the ONS, said: “While directly produced UK emissions have been falling for many years, once you take account of the UK importing products from abroad, the picture doesn’t look quite so positive.

“However, UK based firms, particularly those in the transport and energy sectors, have made big strides in recent years in reducing their carbon footprints.”

In a sign of domestic progress, the ONS said there was evidence of an “absolute decoupling” between CO2 emissions and economic growth since about 1985, driven by the steady dismantling of the nation’s manufacturing base and the gradual rise of renewable energy sources and low-carbon technologies.

The shift away from heavy industry to knowledge-intensive service sector in that period has resulted in gross domestic product per capita rising by 70.7%. It also contributed to a 34.2% decrease in UK-produced carbon emissions.

According to the ONS, energy consumption from fossil fuels fell 22% between 1990 and 2017 to 161.6m tonnes, while energy from renewable and waste sources rose by 1,267% over the same period, reaching 20.5m tonnes.

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A reduction in the use of fossil fuels as the primary source of energy for electricity generation, amid rising adoption of renewables, also cut CO2 emissions by as much as 130m tonnes. The ONS said renewables still only counted for just 10% of the total energy consumed in Britain.

However, the ONS said domestic progress had been counteracted by rising imports from countries such as China, which has a more carbon-intensive energy mix than Britain.

It found that consumption-based emissions – which account for the global carbon footprint of products bought by UK households – were about 37% higher than the UK’s domestic carbon emissions in 2007, compared with just 0.2% in the early 1970s.

But in a positive signal for the future, the ONS said both domestic and consumption-based emissions had fallen since the 2008 financial crisis.

Although this coincided with the global economic downturn, emissions from domestic sources and imports had continued to show decline in the recovery, the ONS said, adding: “Environmental awareness, political appetite and policy focus all suggest that in the last 10 years the UK has made a genuine effort to cut carbon emissions.”