CO2: the UK, the Numbers & How Greta Unpicked the Facts

We do our level best, on our social media feeds, to bring you stories about reforestation, deforestation, climate change and associated matters, prioritising viewpoints from Kenya, but also from around the world.

It’s always joyful to find uplifting stories to share – we need those encouraging articles now, more than ever perhaps, as the reality of how our planet isn’t coping, can be quite disheartening.

An article has piqued our interest today, it’s a BBC Reality Check on the Science pages, written by Rachel Schraer, click here to read it all.

We felt there was such a lot of poignant information about where the UK claims to be with regard to it’s CO2 reduction, that it was worthy of a bit of dissection and a blog post, so here we are. This isn’t an easy read, in fact, it has been quite challenging to write but in order to better understand the problem Greta has highlighted, we need to have a think about the science first.

She’s One in a Million

Greta Thunberg is the Swedish, teenage student who recently lit the blue touchpaper and inspired a movement of students to go on strike in schools across the globe. She is a fascinating, passionately driven environmentalist and we’re learning that she has spent much of the past few years worrying about climate change and feeling inadequate about her ability to do anything to help the planet (read this recent interview from The Guardian).

She is calling Theresa May out and taking her government to task, about the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions the UK is said to have made.

Thanks to the Paris Agreement which we signed up to, the UK has a goal to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from the measurements taken in 1990 and that needs to have taken place by the year 2050, just 31 years from now.

The emissions they’re referring to are mainly CO2 and they are created as a by-product of burning of fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil). This has been done en masse since the start of the industrial revolution, when the world discovered it was quite good at making factories..

The problem is, an excess of polluting particles created from the burning of fossil fuels have been released up into the atmosphere and they’ve formed a blanket which basically covers the planet. Lots of the heat and light energy that comes from our sun, hits the earth’s surface – earth and oceans – and bounces back into space. Some doesn’t even get that far, it hits the clouds and bounces back up but some of the heat gets trapped by a layer of tiny but incredibly dangerous pollutants like CO2 and it bounces it right back down to the earth’s surface. It’s the stuff that’s melting our ice caps.

What is the UK Claiming?

Basically, that our greenhouse gas emissions have gone down by 42%. Greta disputes that with bells on. In an address at Westminster, she said it’s a lot closer to 10% – there’s a vast chasm of difference between those two figures.

Greta says that our government is guilty of doing some ‘very creative carbon accounting’ because they haven’t included any emissions caused by international aviation, shipping or imports. Instead, it has only chosen to tally up what’s referred to as our ‘territorial emissions’, (also referred to as production-based or consumption-based emissions). These are the pollutants that the UK is responsible for throwing back into the atmosphere, from within our land borders. They should include emissions created by all the other forms of transport, plus those caused by the production of our imports, from industry, all forms of agriculture, domestic and commercial heating, the powering of our homes, and so on.

Greta was spot on with her accusation.

If the UK were placed in the dock, they’d argue that we’re not the only country to present their numbers to the United Nations in respect of the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol in this way, they are simply following the internationally agreed standard by which many other countries produce their figures.

So, if all the other countries are producing conveniently ‘docked’ figures for their emissions because they’re not including calculations for international aviation, shipping or imports, what is happening to everything else that takes place on, or over the waters?

It seems we have some seriously omitted emissions to locate here! Just because they’re not happening within the UK’s four walls, as it were, it’s quite unacceptable that they are not being accounted for.

What are the Real Figures then?

The UK cannot claim stupidity, or, “I didn’t know I needed to add them in, Sir” if other countries are looking skywards and whistling, saying they didn’t know they should add them in either.

Thank goodness DEFRA has got a grip on the numbers. It makes perfect sense that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has it’s finger on the pulse – that fits well within its job description, keeping track of absolutely everything we use. Unfortunately, they say their figures are, ‘not to be used as official figures though’ – quite why, we’re not sure – perhaps they reveal too many inconvenient truths.

So they say – off the record, mind you – that in 2016, our estimated overall CO2 footprint was approximately 10% lower than when the first figures were totted up, back in 1997.

As if that Weren’t Complicated Enough

So in 2016, the territorial emissions were reported to be 468 million tonnes of CO2 but if you include the total ‘consumed’ emissions, it’s 784 million tonnes – that’s over 1 ½ times the territorial amount – quite a hike eh….

The maths of consumption emissions are complicated further by the simple fact that it’s immensely difficult to put an exact figure on emissions from the aviation and shipping sectors. Global shopping trolleys are quite hard to follow around and track with great precision.

What DEFRA actually say in the UK’s Carbon Footprint 1997–2016 report, is:, “There have been a number of improvements in the model, with more up-to-date and reliable financial data, which should have reduced the range of errors for the more recent years. However, the uncertainty relating to the changes in the UK’s greenhouse gas footprint has not yet been researched and the estimates must therefore be treated with caution. These are classified as experimental statistics because of inherent uncertainties in the estimation of both non-CO2 and CO2 emissions. The methodology is subject to ongoing review and refinement from time to time.”

Guess that’ll have to do then, DEFRA!

There are said to be frequent discussions about these ‘lost emissions’, with some suggesting that all countries on the big blue squishy ball we live on, should take more responsibility and claim a few, particularly developing countries, like China and India. In respect of manufacturing and exports, they are undoubtedly responsible for creating greater (CO2 and other pollutant) emissions, but it doesn’t look like they’re going to add them to their totals any time soon. If they did have to pull their weight and take more responsibility, however, their defence would probably be: “We wouldn’t make it, it they hadn’t asked for it”, so perhaps the only way to fairly share it out, is to do precisely that and fairly share it out amongst us all. Let’s face it, the UK has been polluting the skies for an awful lot longer than they have!

It Counts for Nothing

If there’s one important thing Greta’s comments have alerted us to, it’s this: these domestic emissions are a thoroughly inaccurate measure of what each of the countries is ultimately responsible for. They are outrageously light and by self-admission, about as much use as a chocolate teapot. The off kilter figures produced by DEFRA would clearly be a better set of numbers to work from, but why would the government want to start using those? It might taint their reputation as, ‘the greenest government ever’… ehem.

Our planet is at existential crisis o’clock.

With every passing day, more scientists join the choir that echoes that sentiment, along with respected individuals and naturalists like Sir David Attenborough and meteorological departments from around the world.

While global leaders continue to ineffectually bitch slap each other, bleating, “It wasn’t me, I didn’t do it!” it seems the only practical solution left is for ‘woke’ humans and environmental NGOs around the world, like ours, to put in all the hours we can to plant trees, develop less carbon intensive solutions for living and to refine our lifestyles.

A Change is Gonna Come

Our CEO laments with sadness that she feels the time for great action will only come once a considerable amount of blood has been spilled and human displacement from climate disasters has claimed their homesteads and livelihoods, leaving those that remain, desperate, without root and wandering.

Whatever we do on this planet, whether it’s making a sandwich, hopping on a bus, doing a spot of gardening, making tea or buying a tee-shirt, there’s a carbon cost and for some of those activities, we can reduce carbon emissions… and don’t say, “Oh, I’ll just go off and die then”, because there’s a carbon cost to that too.

For almost every one of those common actions we frequently undertake, we humans could elect to do them more lightly: embracing plant-based eating, shopping locally, eating seasonally, reducing plastic use, recycling properly, composting, growing a few things in the garden, using electric transport, cutting out inane spending on frippery, swapping flights for trains, insulating the loft, not leaving the heating on and the windows open, and a thousand other actions in between.

Perhaps the most effective thing we could do is not be like the governments who conveniently choose the figures that make them look good!

How about saying, “I’m an average human, my carbon footprint is about 10 tonnes a year (you can calculate yours by clicking here) I’m going to plant 40 trees to offset that (which with us and on the global market in fact, would cost £100, as carbon is currently £10 per tonne). And to try and clear the mess up, I’m going to plant a few more so I can remove somebody else’s carbon footprint too.

The UK government can remain bloody-minded about it all and carry on doing business as usual for now, but the consequences of their inaction will bite them eventually, make no mistake about that.

The citizens of the world who can make a big difference, should just get on with it and there are a great many wealthy souls who could afford to plant enough trees to absorb someone else’s carbon – indeed, there are countless enterprises out there who could plant more than enough on behalf of those who are strapped by poverty. What a selfless gesture of kindness that would be.

Until then, we’ll get on organising our next fundraiser.

Are you coming?

The Team

PS: Click here to enable us to plant 40 fast growing trees (£100) and click here to plant 80 (£200) click here to plant as many as you like – thank you.