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UK greenhouse gas emissions associated with international trade

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)1,2,3. 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.

Looking at individual countries (Figure 3), the countries with the highest value of goods imports to the UK in 2020 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 were:

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

Goods imports 2020: £426 billion


Commodities

Imports commodities

EU / Rest of World split

Imports commodities split by EU / rest of world

UK's top trading partners

Imports top partners

Goods exports 2020: £306 billion


Commodities

Exports commodities

EU / Rest of World split

Exports commodities split by EU / rest of world

UK's top trading partners

Exports top partners

Source: Office for National Statistics

The UK’s carbon footprint

The UK’s carbon footprint is the emissions measure that includes emissions associated with the consumption spending of UK residents on goods and services wherever in the world these emissions arise along their supply chains, and so takes account of emissions associated with UK trade. In addition, it includes emissions which are directly generated by UK households, for example through private motoring and burning fuel to heat homes.

This is often referred to as ‘consumption’ or ‘demand-based emissions’, distinguishing them from ‘production emissions’ estimates that only include emissions produced within a country’s geographical boundaries (territorial) or economic sphere (residence-based)4. Article Measuring UK greenhouse gas emissions gives more information on these different ways of measuring UK emissions.

The level of emissions as measured on a carbon footprint basis can therefore be influenced by changes in what the UK imports, changes in supply chain trade-patterns of the countries from where the UK imports, and differences in the emission intensity of production across countries within those supply chains.

Over the period 1997 to 2018, the carbon footprint fell by 26%, from 794 Mt CO2e in 1997 to 703 Mt CO2e in 2018. Territorial emissions — which informs the UK-wide net zero target — have fallen 38% over the same period5 (see article The UK’s climate is changing. What is driving this? How is the UK responding?)

The smaller percentage reduction in footprint estimate may reflect the UK economy continuing to move further towards a services-based economy and away from a manufacturing-based economy, with a greater dependence for some goods on imports.

The peak year for UK’s carbon footprint emissions measure since 1997 was 2004, when emissions stood at 1,018 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent — Mt CO2e, which takes into account the seven key greenhouse gases6. By 2018, the latest available year, this was down 31% on the 2004 peak at 703 Mt CO2e (Figure 4).

Between 2017 and 2018, the latest available years, the UK’s carbon footprint is estimated to have risen by 1 per cent. This slight increase reflects some increases in household heating and goods imported.

The proportion of the total emissions footprint generated directly by UK households has remained between 16 and 21% in the period 1997 to 2018. Emissions from heating, a major component of emissions directly from households, tend to fluctuate in line with the severity of winters.

Although the proportion of the total emissions footprint generated by UK households has remained relatively stable, households' emissions footprint associated with electricity, gas and fuel use has decreased over this period. This is driven largely by a switch from using coal and heavy-emitting fuels in the energy supply and manufacturing industries to lower emission fuels such as natural gas and, more recently, renewable sources (214 Mt CO2e in 1997 compared to 144 Mt CO2e in 2019). UK households’ emissions footprint associated with transport has remained more stable over this period (204 Mt CO2e in 1997 compared to 185 Mt CO2e in 2018).

The proportion of the UK emissions footprint from imports was 43% in 2018, slightly higher than in 1997 when it was 41%. This measure has been relatively stable in recent years, which may reflect that despite increasing UK imports, source countries are making progress in tackling associated emissions.

In 2018, emissions relating to EU imports accounted for 28% of imported emissions, after a peak of 102 Mt CO2e in 2002, these have decreased 17% to 85 Mt CO2e in 2018. However, this is higher than the 1997 level of 80 Mt CO2e (Figure 5).

China accounted for 12% of imported emissions in 2018, compared to 6% in 1997. These imported emissions were 37 Mt CO2e in 2018, which was 64% higher than the 1997 level of 23 Mt CO2e.

Emissions embedded in imports from the USA accounted for 5% of imported emissions in 2018, down from 14% in 1997. They have decreased by 72% since 1997, from 54 Mt CO2e to 15 Mt CO2e.

Emissions embedded in imports from countries other than EU members, China and the USA accounted for the rest of imported emissions (54%). These imported emissions have decreased by 30% from 236 Mt CO2e in 1997 to 164 Mt CO2e in 2018.

Increases in emissions associated with imports can be due to the UK importing more goods and/or the emissions intensity of these goods increasing, for example during the surge of coal-fired electricity generation in China during the 1990s and 2000s.

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 6).

Product category (COICOP) 1997 2018
Transportation 28 34
Housing and power 34 30
Food and non-alcoholic beverages 12 12
Recreation, culture and communication 7 7
Hotels and restaurants 7 6
Other consumption 6 6
Furnishing and appliances 4 3
Clothing and footwear 2 2

Source: Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

  1. Other consumption encompasses alcohol & tobacco, health, education and miscellaneous goods and services.

  2. For some United Nations Classification of Individual Consumption by Purpose (COICOP) categories such as education or healthcare, only the portion of these services directly paid for by households are captured within household expenditure. The actual consumption and associated material footprint of these functions is larger, but partly captured under individual-consumption-related government expenditure.

  3. Please see the dataset accompanying the source report for more detailed breakdowns.

Footnotes

  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).

Contact details for this article: climate.change@ons.gov.uk