We are all aware of the gross effects of climate change, with recent years seeing the warmest global temperatures ever recorded, each one resulting in new records for rising temperatures. We hear how the global average temperature of Earth’s surface is now 1.2 degrees higher than pre-industrial levels. And every day we seem to see pictures of melting arctic sea ice, leading to floods and other extreme weather events. 

Oddly, though, this sense of climate change as a global event can make it seem distant, occurring in faraway nations with more volatile climates. But as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns, climate change does and will affect people all over the world, no matter where you are from. 

How Is the UK Affected by Climate Change? 

Although the islands of the U.K. can feel disconnected from global cataclysms, we all share a planetary and climactic system. When ice sheets melt in one part of the world, there’s an increase in the global average surface temperature and sea levels rise, which causes flooding far away from the poles. The recent greater frequency of floods in the U.K. is directly attributable to these factors. 

This is one example of the direct, physical effects of climate change in the U.K. But there are indirect effects as well. For example, it’s estimated that by 2050, there will be between 150 million and 1 billion climate migrants — people who have been displaced from their homes due to the impacts of climate change, such as water scarcity or unendurable temperature rises.  

In this way, apparently localized events like heat waves and droughts are felt throughout the world. Socioeconomic factors like increasingly dense population concentrations in urban areas mean increased pressure on resources and supply chains and more vulnerability to the risks of global warming throughout the world.  

Of course, there are positive effects in society that are emerging in response to climate change, such as the gradual development of a new, greener economy. One example is investment in renewable energy — which not only makes use of free and sustainable sources such as the sun’s energy, but provides new livelihoods for those whose jobs are becoming obsolete.  

Due to the threats climate change poses to global supply chains and sources of produce abroad, we also see innovation in land use. For example, disused spaces in cities are being reimagined as plots for urban farming or previously barren land is regenerated by sustainable farming techniques, which not only combat climate change but have the added benefit of reconnecting people with nature. 

That is, natural factors in climate change in one area of the world have knock-on effects in other areas of the world both in terms of climate and broader geopolitics and socioeconomics.  

How Is the UK Contributing to Global Carbon Emissions? 

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However, just because the U.K. experiences some effects of climate change, that doesn’t mean that this is proportionate to the impact it has had on the climate. In order to understand the impact the U.K. has made, we have to consider a range of factors. 

Most obvious, of course, are the emissions currently being released within the U.K. from fossil fuels burned, largely as a result of industrial processes and transport. However, it’s not as simple as that.  

We also need to take into account historic emissions. One of the reasons that greenhouse gases are so destructive to our climate is that they remain in the atmosphere (for periods spanning millennia) after they enter it, unless they are intentionally removed such as through carbon offsetting projects. 

That means that emissions released at any point over the industrial age are still in our atmosphere now and must be factored in when we consider current factors in climate change. For this reason, carbon offsetting and emissions reduction strategies generally should take into account organizations’ and individuals’ past, as well as present, emissions. That is, if a country or an organisation has been responsible for emissions in the past, even if it no longer produces any emissions, it remains their responsibility to offset them now. 

Of course, we’re not just talking about emissions, either, but any activities which affect our climate. Let’s look at the other factors affecting the U.K.’s contribution within this wider context. 

Where Do Greenhouse Gases Come From?  

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The first thing to remember here is that global warming is brought about by all greenhouse gases (GHGs), not just carbon. We talk about carbon offsetting as a catchall term for GHGs, but it includes efforts to offset gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, too.  

It’s essential that we factor in all greenhouse gas emissions because others often have a far greater warming effect on the earth’s climate than carbon dioxide. (Methane has a warming effect about 30 times higher than carbon dioxide, for example, whereas nitrous oxide is alleged to be 300 times more harmful to the climate than C02).  

The U.K. agriculture sector, for example, releases a huge amount of methane through — surprisingly — cow burps. There are also high amounts of methane and nitrous oxide used in fertilizer.  

Climate change is about more than emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases; it concerns anything that affects our climate system — e.g., ecosystem degradation, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, wildfires, sea level rise, and volcanic eruptions. And we must also consider the release of other toxins into the ozone such as aerosols, which affect how radiation enters and escapes Earth’s atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect. 

Historic activity also affects our planet in ways beyond emissions. The ecosystems that have been eroded over the course of the industrial age to make way for cities and industry remain eroded, with all of the associated knock-on effects this has. 

Moreover, all of these factors overlap. For example, deforestation releases carbon into the atmosphere while also harming ecosystems. Global warming locks us into negative feedback loops which affect the whole system: ice melts, causing temperatures to rise, causing more ice to melt, creating floods and destroying ecosystems. 

Understanding 2 Critical Kinds of Emissions 

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Finally, even when just considering current emissions, there are layers of complexity. Because climate change is a global event, and because we live in a globalized world where the activities of one country are not restricted to within its borders, we have to differentiate between what are called territorial emissions and consumption-based emissions. 

Territorial emissions are emissions released within the borders of a country. The IPCC defines them as “emissions and removals taking place within national (including administered) territories and offshore areas over which the country has jurisdiction.”  

(To be clear, when we say emissions are territorial, we do not mean they only affect that territory. We are referring to where those emissions are produced. We all share the same global climate and ecosystem, and emissions produced in one location contribute to climate change as a whole.) 

Territorial emissions then would refer to any industries and organisations that operate within a country. It would refer to emissions from transport along its roads and through its skies, and to anything manufactured or produced on its land, such as our food and drink.  

Consumption-based emissions, meanwhile, are the emissions created by the total consumption of a country’s citizens and organizations. This is a critical difference. We live in a globalised world where products and services are purchased in places all over the world. If I purchase some good in China, and thereby benefit from that good, I am thereby responsible for the carbon the purchase of this good entails.  

Consumption-based emissions reporting allocates emissions to those who actually consume the goods and services, rather than those who produced the emissions to provide them. ‘The consumption-based approach captures direct and life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of goods and services (including those from raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, retail, and disposal) and allocates greenhouse gas emissions ‘to the final consumers of those goods and services, rather than to the original producers of those GHG emissions,’ according to C40’s Climate Action Planning Resource Centre.  

Traditionally, emissions have been tracked based on sector, divided into aviation, agriculture, transport, and so on. But considering that global trade as a whole is the main driver of climate change through the processes related to transporting and producing goods, we have to factor in consumption to truly reflect a country’s carbon footprint.  

This means taking into account imports and exports, as well as aviation, much of which takes place abroad but on behalf of U.K. citizens, and emissions related to agriculture which generates the produce we consume, just for example. And it means taking into consideration the emissions directly and indirectly fueled by the U.K. financial sector, which contributes so much to the U.K. economy. 

A consumption-based approach is perhaps the most important consideration when calculating the U.K.’s impact on climate change. This becomes apparent when we consider that “In 2016, 54% of the UK’s carbon footprint was domestically sourced, with the remaining 46% coming from emissions released overseas to satisfy U.K. consumption. The overseas proportion of the UK’s carbon footprint increased substantially — from just 14% in 1990 — thus reducing the scope of U.K. climate policy to affect emissions associated with consumption,” according to a comprehensive report from the WWF. 

That is to say, the emissions for which a country (particularly one with a developed economy) is responsible, can appear to go down if we only consider territorial emissions, because these emissions are displaced to other areas of the world, where producing those emissions is cheaper. For example, there has been a 41% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the U.K. between 1990 and 2016 according to territorial emissions, but when we take into account consumption-based emissions, the true reduction is only 16% 

It should be noted that practically all of these causes of climate change relate to human activities. (This is obvious when we consider that before the industrial age, global temperatures had remained pretty stable since the last ice age.) Some countries may contribute to climate change through natural causes such as volcanic eruptions, but — aside from not being that country’s fault — these are essentially negligible factors in the grand scheme of things. 

How Is the Contributing the Most to Climate Change? 

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Just where is the U.K. contributing most to climate change? Put simply, the main cause of climate change wherever you are in the world is burning fossil fuels.  

When we consider consumption-based emissions, the areas which produce the most emissions in the U.K. are business and industry and service products (i.e., services you pay for), followed by transport and then residential emissions. 

Interestingly, this remains almost the same when we look at territorial emissions. However, there is a vast difference between the amount of emissions produced in these sectors depending on which type of emissions accounting we are using.  

Transport-related emissions are the highest emitter on a territorial basis, accounting for almost 200 mega tonnes of carbon dioxide. But the figure actually falls slightly when we look at consumption-based emissions related to transport. (This could be due to factors like the amount of flights arriving in and taking place within the U.K. being higher than the amount of flights leaving the U.K.) 

On the other hand, emissions related to business and industry skyrocket when we compare consumption-based emissions to territorial emissions. As a post-industrial, information economy, the U.K. has outsourced most of its industry to countries with cheaper labor, land, and natural resources.  

Although, for example, local coal mines began to shut down en masse in the UK in the early ’70s, the consumption dependent on it — such as coal-powered energy production — has massively increased. This energy is now simply generated in other countries and then piped back into the U.K. But it is important that the responsibility for the emissions released are not simply displaced offshore as well. 

What Does this Mean for UK Citizens?  

It’s not a straightforward task to figure out how a single country is contributing to climate change. We need to factor in historic impacts on the climate system which are still influencing it today. We also need to consider all of the emissions for which a nation is responsible in a globalized world, as well as factors in climate extending beyond mere emissions, such as ecosystem destruction (which are caused as much by land use change as by global warming, for example).  

The countries of the Global North, including the U.K., have historically been the biggest emitters and continue to emit both directly as well as indirectly through their economic activities abroad. This means that responsibility for climate action in all of its forms — such as protesting, sustainable consumption, community action, etc. — falls particularly on the shoulders of the citizens of these countries.   

One of the easiest things you can do as an individual is to offset your own or your business’s current and historic emissions. As much as you can, consider not only the emissions you yourself cause directly, but also try to factor in emissions related to the products you buy and the food you eat.   

You can use this tool to help you calculate your emissions and then learn how you can offset your carbon emissions to do your part in fighting climate change. If you want to go above and beyond, you could even try talking to the organisation you work for about the offsets they are responsible for.   

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