Why the UK is not 'just 1%' and why that matters

It is too often said the UK is only a small part of global emissions, to argue we've done our bit. But investing in climate action is hugely in the UK's economic and security interest.

Profile picture of Gareth Redmond-King

By Gareth Redmond-King


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As night follows day, so prominent news around climate change – say, a UN climate summit – is followed by the argument that ‘the UK is just 1% of emissions, and what about China?’. This 1% argument tends to draw in two rather contradictory positions. On the one hand, the UK is just 1% of emissions, and we’ve done lots to cut our emissions anyway. On the other, we’re a global giant, bestriding and generally leading on every world stage. Somehow, either one gets us to ‘we’ve done our bit and don’t owe anyone anything, so push off and demonstrate somewhere else’.

This is for those who like the talking of talk at a global summit but are not so keen on walking the climate action walk back home. Right now, some of its proponents are also in explosive indignation at the idea that the UK has a role to help fund climate solutions, adaptation and recovery from climate damage in other parts of the world. Let’s look at the ingredients of the 1%-ers’ argument.

UK is only 1% of global emissions

Sure, if we look solely at emissions within our borders. But in 2016, the UK’s true carbon footprint was nearly twice that. That is, when you include emissions generated elsewhere in the world to supply stuff we import, or by things we do outside the UK. That includes our international flights, and imported fossil fuels, as well as imported goods from TVs to t-shirts and tables. After the EU, China is the second biggest source of those goods and emissions, with Russia and the Middle East historically in the top six. Although we can imagine Russia may have slid down that list recently.

But even at 1%, we’re still amongst the top 20 emitting countries. Nearly a third of global emissions come from accumulated countries whose territorial emissions are each 1% or less of the global total; around half from nations that account for less than 3% each.

If every country responsible for 1% or less of global emissions stopped trying it would leave us with a much greater problem.

CO2 emissions per capita
per capita emissions list

Amongst G20 nations, we ranked 17th for CO2 emissions in 2020. We creep up the list when you count emissions per capita – how much we emit per person. Then we’re 13th, emitting just under 5 tonnes of CO2 per head. That’s 162 times the amount of CO2 each person emits in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 16 times the number for Kenya, nine times that of Bangladesh, and nearly three times the emissions of each person in India. And whilst China is the single biggest emitter in the world, it is bang in the middle of the G20 nations for per capita emissions.

History matters

Even if all this wasn’t true, the UK is the eighth biggest historic emitter. That’s because we started burning fossil fuels – the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. That’s not water under the bridge – that’s emissions literally still up there in the atmosphere, causing the climate crisis we face today.

This is effectively built into the UN process, and the Paris Agreement, which put greater expectation on wealthy developed countries not just to cut emissions earlier, but also to provide financial support and assistance to less wealthy, developing countries.

Leading on the world stage

The UK is influential. We’ve been ‘global Britain’ for a long time. We have the sixth biggest economy, are a member of the G7 and G20 groups of industrial nations, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and a founding member of NATO. We also just held the presidency of the UNFCCC climate summit, COP26, hosted in Glasgow.

Sunak at COP27 - Number 10 Flickr

When wealthy, powerful nations step up and set emissions targets, others follow. When wealthy, powerful nations step up and commit to the goals of the Paris Agreement, others follow. The UK led on committing to a legally-binding net zero target, and many others have followed; net-zero targets now cover 90% of the world’s GDP, as the UK PM observed at COP27. The UK’s Climate Change Act – putting emissions targets into law – was the first of its kind. More recently, we were the first major global economy to raise that legally-binding target to net-zero, and our level of ambition for this decade (at least 68% cut by 2030 on 1990 levels) is genuinely leading edge.

Leading in markets

Being wealthy, we have market impact. UK public investment in offshore wind since 2010 built a market here that until 2020, was the single biggest in the world. China has overtaken – because they invest in and build renewables on a huge scale, for those who claim China ‘isn’t doing anything’. But we were still second in 2021, some way ahead of third placed Germany. Investment here helped to drive costs down and fuel technological improvements. That means offshore wind today is cheaper and more effective for every other nation on Earth, because of actions the UK took over the last decade.

And how did we become wealthy? By being at the forefront of not just the first, but also the second and third (electricity and electronics) industrial revolutions. Why would we not want to be at the forefront of the fourth? It undoubtedly includes clean technology, renewables and other climate solutions – so, cleaning up in more ways than one.

Investing in UK interests

Given the opportunity for British businesses, and all our historic emissions still up there contributing to a problem most nations have done little to cause, we have both self-interest and expectation.

It’s too easy to fixate on the latter – to frame a scary high money number, and talk about British taxpayers' money going abroad. But as former UK Ambassador to Russia and Afghanistan, Sir Laurie Bristow, said recently, “we need to restate the case for development assistance as an investment in our own national security. We of course need to build a strong economy based on sound public finances. But our national security also depends on what happens in other countries.”

This is why UK Export Finance – an arm of government – spends nearly £9 billion a year to help British businesses invest overseas. In 2021, some 40% of that was specifically on clean transition. These low carbon and renewable energy UK businesses generated £41.2 billion turnover in 2020, and directly employed 207,800 people directly, and up to half a million via supply chains.

Sepi tweet on Africa wind potential

This is big business, not charity. And when new President of Kenya, William Ruto, says that his and other African countries want to “leapfrog this dirty energy and embrace the benefits of clean power”, he is signalling the scale of the opportunity for those British businesses.

What we spend on climate finance (£11.6 billion over five years - £2.32 billion a year), and overseas development assistance (ODA – £11.5 billion in 2021, down nearly £3 billion on 2020) is much smaller, but no less an investment. Securing the stability and viability of some of the poorest nations in the world helps stem extremism and prevent people being forced to leave their homes to migrate to other countries. It also helps shore up UK supply chains – the UK Climate Change Committee recently warned that 20% of the economic value of overseas supply chains serving UK consumption was in areas of ‘medium’ to ‘very high’ risk of climate hazards. And this year we have seen more starkly than ever that food produced for the UK - both in the UK and overseas - can be vulnerable to the impacts of climate change; it is clearly in our interests to curb the impacts of climate change on farmers everywhere.

And if it’s not the UK investing and supporting developing nations, who steps in in our place? As former director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, Camilla Toulmin explains, the answer could be Russian mercenaries. The UK “has already cut the Sahel programme, and is cutting it further. At the same time, Russia’s Wagner Group is digging in, seeking to control military strategy and much of the gold mining in the country.” They’re not the only ones – there is considerable Chinese infrastructure investment in ports across Africa, for example.

Fine – for them. They get not just the economic advantages, but also the geopolitical edge; something we’ve seen all too starkly as lines are drawn in votes at the UN on condemnation of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

So not just 1%

We’re not actually ‘just 1%’, but even if we were, that’s far from nothing. We have done a lot to decarbonise, but so has China. They will install 165 GW of renewables in 2022 – 870 GW from 2021 to 2025. Sales of electric vehicles in China this year have doubled this year over last, and China’s emissions fell 8% in the second quarter of this year. Definitely not nothing, and whilst they can do more, it is a huge investment by a state accounting for nearly a fifth of the global economy; because they know it is good economics, and good geopolitics.

Anyway, the job isn’t done just because someone else could do more. The atmosphere doesn’t care where the emissions come from that keep warming the planet. And we’re a big enough deal globally to lead, rich enough to invest, wise enough not to forget the lessons of history. But we should also be economically savvy enough to recognise that this is a huge opportunity for the UK and British businesses. The $500 billion the US is spending, the billions China is spending, the accelerating investment in the EU to get off Russian gas – these are all growing markets and industries. Surely the UK wants a piece of that!