Avoiding the spin

Amongst all the coverage in the build up to Durban last week, I noticed a rather odd-looking story from Fiona Harvey (previously at the Financial Times, now in the green corner at The Guardian) on “government research” claiming that UK carbon-cutting targets would be exceeded. The piece said that a new report claimed that the UK would “over-achieve on its carbon-cutting targets” and that “Since 1990, the UK’s carbon emissions have dropped by a quarter.” This is not, according to the account in the Guardian, due to the recession. The context is of course Durban, with the report supposedly showing the world that, in Chris Huhne’s words, “the UK is walking the walk on climate change”.

The new research cited by Harvey turns out to be a document called The Carbon Plan, basically yet another strategy document looking ahead to 2020, 2030 and 2050. Chris Huhne’s foreword does seem to put a similar gloss on the numbers: “By 2020 we will complete the ‘easy wins’ that have helped emissions to fall by a quarter since 1990.”

But this is really a piece of spin. Drilling down into the underlying figures (also available from the UK government), we find a slightly different story.

First, while greenhouse gas emissions emitted from within the UK are down by over 25% since 1990, carbon dioxide emissions are down by less than 17%, on the provisional 2010 data.  It is widely known that overall greenhouse gas emissions in the UK are down substantially since 1990, and it has been apparent that we would exceed our Kyoto target easily, but it has also long been thought that we would miss our own domestic target of 20% reduction in CO2 by 2010, and so it has proved (would have been worse without the recession). There is clearly some sleight of hand here, picked up by the Guardian and reproduced as “emissions fell by 25.2%”. This might sound like pedantry – surely its GHG emissions that count, so who cares? But the difference matters because it has proven much easier to cut other GHG (mostly methane) emissions in the past (down 54% 1990 to 2010), whereas it is carbon dioxide emissions that we really have to cut in the future. It is the latter that have to be cut if we want to show leadership. And of course the figures reported in the plan don’t include shipping and aviation. The other point on targets, as we have mentioned before, is that UK CO2 emissions on the more appropriate consumption basis (as opposed to the official production figures) are well  up since 1990, of the order to 20-30%.

A second issue is that, while there has indeed been some decarbonisation in the power sector, this all happened in the 1990s, the dash for gas period. Greenhouse gas emissions (almost all CO2) from power stations fell by almost 28% between 1990 and 1999. This was pre-emissions trading, and largely the result of privatisation and changes in the relative price of coal and gas. Since 1999, and over the period when climate policy started to come in more seriously, emissions from the power sector rose again by around 20% to the pre-recession height in 2007. Sure, we have built more renewables, but it hasn’t been enough to offset the resurgence in coal use.

Another odd thing is about the residential sector. Despite all the action on insulation and boilers, emissions from the residential sector are higher in 2010 than they were in 1990. This may have been due to the cold winter in the latter year, but pre-crash emissions were still about the same level as they were in the early 1990s. There has been some decline since the early 2000s, but it’s not earth-shattering.

The one sector that really has seen big declines in CO2 emissions (20% between 1990 and 2007) is the business sector.  According to a recent UK Energy Research Council study, this fall has been due to improvements in efficiency rather declining output or the loss of heavy industry (which had mostly happened by 1990). Unlike the power sector, most of the fall has been in the 2000s, not the 1990s. This is in fact the only part of the economy where the UK may have a claim to be walking the walk (transport emissions flatlined).

This is not a bad achievement in itself, but it gets lost in the noise. Government will spin the figures to exaggerate policy impact and protect its reputation. Environmentalists and various industry lobbies will also be selective and look for stats that make performance look bad. The recent exchange on the costs of offshore wind as a proportion of household energy bills is a good example. What we need is good reporting that can cut through both sets of bias and tell it like it is.

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