Report: 25 years after Rio, UK leads G7 in both growth and carbon cuts

Over the last 25 years, the UK has been the most successful G7 nation at both growing its economy and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, new research shows. 

coal-Senor-Codo

Greenhouse gas emissions need to fall rapidly to prevent dangerous climate change. Image: Senor Codo, creative commons licence

A report by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) found that in the quarter century since the signing of the United Nations Climate Convention at the Rio Earth Summit, Britons have become richer, on average, than citizens of any other G7 nation. At the same time, we have reduced our average carbon footprint further than citizens of any other G7 nation.

The report is released to coincide with the launch of Mission 2020, a new initiative convened by former Executive Secretary of the UN Climate Convention Christiana Figueres, which aims to have global greenhouse gas emissions declining by 2020.

Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said the findings demolish the argument that curbing climate change ruins economies.

“It’s really time to slay once and for all the old canard that cutting carbon emissions means economic harm,“ he said.

“As this report shows, if you have consistent policymaking and cross-party consensus, it’s perfectly possible to get richer and cleaner at the same time. Britain isn’t the only country that’s done it – it’s true for most of the G7 – but we’ve clearly been the best of the bunch.

“There are signs that these successes are now transferring to the rest of the world. Globally, emissions have been flat for three years while world GDP has grown by 8%. But science indicates this isn’t enough to fulfil the objective of the UN Convention and prevent ‘dangerous’ climate change – for that, emissions need to start falling soon. This study should give confidence that with good policies, it’s achievable.”

In 2014 – the most recent year for which we have full figures across the G7 – UK per-capita greenhouse gas emissions were 33% down on 1992. UK per-capita GDP, meanwhile, grew by more than 130%.

Lord (Michael) Howard of Lympne, who as UK Environment Secretary negotiated the UN Convention in 1992, said the findings should encourage leaders to pursue emission cuts in line with science.

“Before we signed the UN Climate Convention 25 years ago, Sir John Major and I were firmly of the view that reducing Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions would not harm our economy. This analysis shows that we were right and the doom-mongers wrong,” he said.

“The consequences of unconstrained climate change are now becoming ever clearer, and on a global basis, emissions are not falling quickly enough to avert the risks ahead.

“Therefore, I would wish to commend Christiana Figueres and the Mission 2020 initiative and wish them success as they aim, essentially, to finish the job that we began in Rio de Janeiro 25 years ago.”

The report found several factors behind the UK’s success, including a switch from coal to gas for electricity, energy efficiency schemes cutting demand, and a shift to a more service-based economy.

The report also contests the idea that the UK has cut its emissions at home by “exporting” them – that emissions produced in other countries through making goods imported in the UK have risen. On a per-capita basis, “imported” emissions are now almost exactly the same as in 1997, the first year for which the government produces data – even though UK per-capita GDP has more than doubled in that period.

Professor John Barrett of Leeds University, a leading authority on imported/exported emissions, commented:

“While the UK’s imported emissions rose steadily during the 2000s, they are no longer doing so. On a per-capita basis, the carbon footprint of goods and services imported into the UK has reduced since the financial crisis,” he said.

“This is primarily due to two factors; firstly, suppressed demand for products due to the slow economic recovery, and secondly, domestic action on reducing emissions, particularly related to the significant reduction in coal for electricity generation. 

“However, the UK’s imported emissions remain very high in comparison to other developed countries and there is further action that could be taken including low carbon technology transfer and the more sustainable use of imported materials and products. This will help to ensure that the UK’s imported emissions do not rise in the future with economic growth.”

The report, Conscious decoupling, is available here. (NB this is an amended version of the report, updated on 25 April - see here for details)