UK Government fallacy: overclaiming the reduction in UK CO2 emissions
The UK Government persistently claims it has achieved a fall in UK CO2 emissions of over 40% since 1990, but the real fall is only about 11%.
The UK government has continued with its claims despite repeated criticism, which suggests that the fallacy is a deliberate attempt to deceive.
How does the UK Government get its figures?
The figures claimed by the UK Government are obtained by
- ignoring imports and exports
- omitting aviation and shipping
- omitting any discussion of the most appropriate measure.
Examples of the UK Government's claims
- The Government's 2021 Net Zero Strategy : Boris Johnson in his Foreward claimed "Over the last three decades we have already reduced our emissions by 44 per cent". The document also claims (p296) "The UK is at the forefront of measuring and publishing statistics of emissions generated overseas in the production of goods and services consumed by UK residents", but did not find room in the 368 pages to say what they are, even though they are widely available.
- Boris Johnson claimed in 2020: "We have cut our carbon emissions by nearly twice the EU average since 1990, 42%" .
What are the actual figures?
The chart shows the changes in UK greenhouse gas emissions since 1990. It is an edited version of a chart published by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy :
- The blue (bottom) line gives the figures that the Government quotes: just the territorial emissions, i.e. those released on the ground within the UK.
- The green (top) line shows the total including imports and exports (called 'consumption-based emissions').
The actual fall including aviation but excluding shipping can be estimated as 11% (from 990Mt in 1990 to 880Mt in 2016) - see Appendix.
Why should imports and exports be included?
Over the last three decades, much manufacturing of items sold in the UK has been transferred from the UK to overseas, especially China and India. The items are manufactured only because of the purchasing in the UK. It is clearly of no benefit to tackling the climate emergency to merely transfer manufacturing from one country to another - the world total emissions is unaffected, or might actually increase due to the transport emissions.
The UK Government puts much emphasis on the UK "leading the world" in emission reduction - but it is not true. It is major fallacy on an issue of vital importance. The false claims have continued despite the objections. It is not just a single aberration but appears to be systematic institutionalised deceit.
This fallacy is one of several UK Government climate fallacies - see document 106
Who is speaking up about the fallacy?
- Leeds University academics in their 2020 report commissioned by the WWF 
- Prof Kevin Anderson, Tyndall Centre, Manchester 
- Greta Thunberg, e.g. (a) in her speech to MPs , and (b) in accusing the UK Government of lying (2021) 
- The Fridays for Future open letter 
- George Monbiot & Leo Murray in an excellent animation from 2013: Carbon Omissions 
- The Labour Party in 2019 under Jeremy Corbyn 
- Extinction Rebellion protesters repeatedly .
Who is repeating the fallacy?
- The UK Government's Climate Change Committee, e.g. in its Dec 2020 report 
- Carbon Brief in its 2021 report  - the small print mentions the omission of aviation and imports, but does not give their scale
- Much of the UK media and many commentators.
How is the UK Government responding to the criticisms?
It does not respond, which suggests that the fallacy is deliberate. If the Government is committed to high standards of administration, there should be transparency and accountability.
People who care about basing policies on facts and fairness should
- avoid repeating the fallacy
- call out the fallacy wherever possible
- avoid repeating other Government fallacies.
Notes and references
The figures for emssions from aviation by UK citizens are obtained from
- figures for aviation fuel used in the UK 
- a conversion factor of 2.5 tonnes CO2 per tonne oil equivalent , to give CO2 generated
- increase by a factor of 1.9 to allow for radiative forcing 
- increase by a factor of 2.38 to allow for (a) return flights, and (b) the proportion of passengers at UK airports who are UK nationals 
Uncertainties include how much fuel is used taken on at refueling stops, and how many UK citizens make a short flight to a European airport as the first leg on a long distance flight.First published: 2 Apr 2021
Last updated: 22 Sep 2023