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Articles

The UK’s climate is changing. What is driving this? How is the UK responding?

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body providing science-led comprehensive assessments of climate change science, found that climate change is already happening, with global surface temperatures between 2001 and 2020 around 1°C higher than during 1850 to 1900, and that this is having effects across the world and in the UK including making extreme weather events more likely.

The report found unequivocal evidence that observed warming of the climate is a consequence of emissions from human activity that has increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere. Human induced climate change has already affected the severity and frequency of many types of extreme weather and climate events.

Recent decades in the UK have been warmer, wetter and sunnier than in the 20th century, with 2020 being the third warmest, fifth wettest and eighth sunniest year since records began in 1884.

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Measuring greenhouse gas emissions

The UK is required to report its estimated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on a range of different bases (territorial, residence and footprint) to fulfil a wide range of international agreements as well as for domestic policy making purposes. The three key official measures of UK GHG emissions, territorial, residence and footprint, are explored and defined below.

One of these, territorial, is used to inform progress on UK-wide emissions targets. These include a target of net zero for UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 compared with 1990 levels, adopted by the UK Government in 2019 following a Committee on Climate Change recommendation. More recently, UK government announced the sixth Carbon Budget target to reduce emissions by approximately 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels.

‘Net zero’ means that any GHG emissions would be the same as, or less, than those removed from the atmosphere, which can be achieved through a combination of reduction and removal of emissions.

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Emissions embedded in trade and impacts on climate change

Providing services — including financial, legal and communications services — tends to emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions than manufacturing goods such as petroleum products, iron, steel or concrete.

A structural shift in the UK economy from manufacturing to services over the decades has therefore likely contributed to the fall in key measures of UK greenhouse gas emissions across this period. More detail on emissions intensity of different industries can be found here.

When the UK imports goods (for example, machinery, transport and clothing), or services, emissions associated with their production are nevertheless still occurring in other countries.

Therefore understanding the pattern of UK trade in goods and services and the greenhouse gas emissions ‘embedded’ within what the UK imports and exports, is increasingly important to gain a fuller understanding of the UK’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions.

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