Original article by Tina Fawcett. How can we understand the role of ‘carbon’ within the UK economy?
Waste carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, is the major cause of man-made climate change, arguably the most serious environmental threat facing the planet. Thus it is crucial to understand the place of carbon in our economy so that we can learn to do more with less. This is a summary based on research published in May 2002 by Tina Fawcett, Andrew Hurst and Brenda Boardman. The full report is also available, see 'Where next' for details.
Sections in this article
Carbon and climate change
Global climate change is now widely believed to be the biggest environmental problem facing the world. It is caused by human-induced emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as well as by natural causes. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are already 30% higher than those in pre-industrial times. This has led to an increase in global temperatures of 0.6C. An increase of between 1.4C and 5.8C is expected by 2100. Climate change will also lead to changes in rainfall patterns, storminess and sea level rise.
Climate change will lead to more storminess and sea level rises
With 1% of the world's population the UK produces 2.3% of global carbon dioxide emissions. These need to be seriously reduced if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. The average UK citizen is responsible for 2.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year (measured as carbon). There is a strong case to argue that the UK should reduce carbon emissions by 60% by 2050 - a challenging target. (The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in its report "Energy - The Changing Climate" published in June 2000, recommended that the UK should aim to reduce its CO2 emissions by 60% by 2050.)
Carbon in the UK economy
The UK is a net importer of biomass carbon (in the form of agricultural products and wood) but a net exporter of fossil fuel carbon. We have only a very small share of the world's stocks of biomass carbon in our soils and vegetation - less than one tenth of one percent.
Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels make up 80% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions
The UK economy (like most others) is highly dependent on fossil fuels for energy supplies. Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning make up 80% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. After carbon dioxide, the next most significant greenhouse gas is methane.
Responsibility for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions is not easy to determine - several different ways of doing this are discussed in this report: geographical, by economic activity and by final demand. None of the methods reviewed is perfect; each has its uses.
Energy use (and resultant carbon dioxide emissions) pervades most aspects of life and is usually determined by a complex set of interactions between industry, service providers and consumers, both in the UK and abroad. To move towards a lower carbon economy, all relevant actors should be enabled, encouraged and, if necessary, required to manage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their production and consumption.
Carbon, land and forests
The UK's small land area, and high emissions per capita, means that we cannot significantly offset our carbon emissions by planting additional forests in the British Isles. The total carbon stored in all the UK's vegetation is only equivalent to around two-thirds of one year's greenhouse gas emissions. Thirty years of additional tree planting between 1990 and 2020 is expected in 2020 to harness and store less than 1% of today's greenhouse gas emissions.
Deforestation contributes to climate change worldwide
Worldwide, approximately one fifth of man-made global warming is caused by deforestation and land use change, primarily deforestation in tropical regions. The top priority for forests is to stop them disappearing. Globally, planting additional forests (and other methods of enhancing carbon sequestration in forests) can make a relatively minor, but nonetheless valuable, contribution to mitigating climate change. However, those looking to offset their carbon emissions by planting forests outside the UK need to think carefully about the equity issues involved in what they are doing.
The science of carbon sequestration in forests - how much they can store and for how long - is still very uncertain. On-going research at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute, and elsewhere, is seeking to improve techniques of estimating the carbon stored in forests at local to regional scales. It is addressing two of the sources of scientific uncertainty: carbon measurement methods, and inventories of carbon stocks.
Carbon and waste management
The majority of industrial, commercial and household waste is deposited at landfill sites. Household waste, more than 80% of which goes to landfill, has been increasing at 5% per year in recent years. This is despite long-standing government policies, which have stressed ‘reduce, re-use, recycle'. Waste and materials flows - and the underlying causes of waste generation - are not yet sufficiently well understood.
UK household waste has been increasing at 5% per annum
Organic waste in landfill sites decomposes to produce methane. Methane is a significant greenhouse gas and methane from landfills accounts for around 3% of the UK's greenhouse gases. Some landfill gas is captured and used to generate electricity; in addition, trees can be planted on landfill sites. Both of these offset the greenhouse effect of methane emissions, but currently only to a minor extent. There is considerable scope for increased capture of landfill gas, but even the best technology cannot capture all the gas created.
High levels of household waste recycling, on current evidence, would result in only minor savings of greenhouse gas emissions - just 0.2% of UK emissions. However, this conclusion is tentative, as there is much uncertainty about the methodology and boundaries for counting waste-related carbon emissions. And of course there are many other arguments in favour of greater recycling.
A waste management policy ecogni on greenhouse gas-reduction should pay particular attention to degradable organic wastes: both keeping them out of landfill sites and ensuring that as much landfill gas as possible from their decomposition is captured and burnt. The importance of improved capture of landfill gas, compared with increased levels of recycling, should be recognised.
Future trends and pressures for change
There is little doubt that business-as-usual pressures in the UK economy would lead to increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions in most sectors. This is because the links between economic growth and (carbon-based) energy use and between affluence and effluence have not yet been broken.
Reducing carbon emissions means reducing use of fossil fuels
Just as the majority of carbon dioxide emissions come from using fossil fuel energy, so the majority of the savings will have to result from action to reduce this dependency. Carbon sequestration by additional forests and carbon savings from increased recycling each make a very small contribution (much less than 1% between them) to offsetting the UK's carbon emissions.
Creating carbon managers
Most organisations and individuals in the UK are not currently consciously managing their carbon emissions. More of us need to become carbon managers. Carbon management should be based on the principles of equity, efficiency, certainty and sustainability.
More of us need to become carbon managers
In order to manage carbon, better information about the carbon content of energy, products and services is needed. This information will need to be provided in a timely and relevant way. This could range from carbon emissions totals on energy bills to carbon labels on products enabling people to choose lower carbon options. It would be easiest to provide this information for energy, more difficult for products and most difficult (and perhaps not practical) for services.
To make significant cuts in national carbon emissions, carbon capping either at the level of individuals, organisations or economic sectors will be required. Examples of how this might work for household energy use, personal travel and air travel are outlined in the report. All areas of the economy, demand and supply, products and services, producers and consumers need to work together to move forward into the new low-carbon age.
Look at the full report available here for a clear analysis of carbon flows in the UK economy and the consequent carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. The report is also available as paper copy on request to the Environmental change institute, email email@example.com or phone 01865 275848.
The research was carried out at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute and funded mainly by Biffaward through the landfill tax credit scheme. TXU Europe Power and Linacre College, Oxford gave the remaining funding.
Other articles in this section ‘Carbon Cycle' and ‘Climate Change and its Causes' may be useful reading.