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Emissions embedded in trade and impacts on climate change

1 November 2021

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.

What and with who does the UK trade?

In 2020, the value of the UK’s total imports of goods was £426 billion, with the UK total goods exports valued at £306 billion (Figure 1)123. The UK’s trade in services are not considered in this article but more information is available here.

Cars and medicinal and pharmaceutical products made up the largest categories of both imports to and exports from the UK in 2020 (Figure 2).

UK trade in goods in 2020 was impacted by both European Union (EU) exit and the coronavirus pandemic - for more information and estimates of UK trade relating to years prior to 2020 see here.

In 2020, the EU accounted for 53% of UK goods imports and 47% of goods exports (Figure 3).

Looking at individual countries, the countries with the highest value of goods imports to the UK in 2020 (Figure 4) were:

  • Germany (£55 billion),
  • China (£54 billion),
  • USA (£37 billion),
  • Netherlands (£36 billion),
  • and France (£24 billion).

The largest highest value of goods exports from the UK by country in the same year (Figure 5) were:

  • USA (£46 billion),
  • Germany (£32 billion),
  • Ireland (£21 billion),
  • Netherlands (£20 billion),
  • and France (£18 billion).

Imports of goods in 2020 totalled £426 billion and exports £306 billion. Machinery and transport equipment made the largest contribution to both total imports and exports (Figure 6). 

UK household’s carbon footprint by function

The carbon footprint of UK households can be broken down by broad function7.

In 2018, transportation — personal and public — was the largest contributor at 34%, followed by housing and power at 30%, then food and non-alcoholic beverages at 12%.

Between 1997 and 2018, the carbon footprint of goods and services associated with housing and power fell from 34% of the total to 30%. This decline was, to a large extent, due to the drop in use of fossil fuel usage and improvements in energy efficiency across this period. By contrast, the carbon footprint associated with transportation rose from 28% to 34% (Figure 9).


  1. The estimates of the UK’s total imports and exports of goods shown in this article include those of precious metals.

  2. For the latest available estimates of UK trade in goods from the ONS see here.

  3. For more information about the methods used to compile the trade statistics in this article and alternative data sources please see here. Users should note that the data published in this article are no longer experimental.

  4. The UK’s carbon footprint measure is classed as an Experimental Statistic due to inherent uncertainties in the estimates produced. The methodology used to produce them is subject to ongoing review and refinement. For more see article Measuring UK greenhouse gas emissions.

  5. Over the period 1990 to 2019, GHG emissions measured on a territorial basis fell by 44%. Over the period 1990 to 2020 (provisional), GHG emissions measured on a territorial basis fell by 49%. For more information see here.

  6. Seven main GHGs covered are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).

  7. Function is classified using the United Nations Classification of Individual Consumption by Purpose (COICOP).

  8. Please note, this article is fixed and therefore will not in all cases include the latest data available.

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