Is the UK cutting its emissions?

Sort of..........

The 2008 Climate Change Act introduced an ambitious legally binding commitment to reduce the UK's greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, relative to 1990.

To put the country on the path to this long-term goal, a system of carbon budgets' was introduced to limit emissions in successive five-year periods. Budgets have been fixed up until the fourth, which requires a cut of 50% relative to 1990 levels in the period 2023–27.

So far, the UK has made good progress. Counting all the gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol, the country's emissions fell by 25.2% between 1990 and 2010 – substantially more than the 12.5% reduction required under Kyoto by the period 2008–2012.

The UK's reduction also compares well to cuts achieved in other countries. According to WRI data, UK emissions fell by an average of 0.5% a year from 1990 to 2005 (the latest year for which data on the main greenhouse gases are available for many countries). That's less than Germany (1.3%) and Russia (2.7%), but far more than most nations. On average, developed countries increased their emissions by 0.9% in the same period and the world as a whole saw an increase of 1.2%, with much greater rises in emerging economies such as China (4.8%).

However, these figures don't tell the whole story. Most fundamentally, the UK is heavily and increasingly reliant on imported goods from China and other countries where emissions are rising. That doesn't affect the official emissions figures, though academics have shown that the UK's total carbon footprint – including the greenhouse gases emitted during the production of imports – is higher now than it was in 1990.

Furthermore, many of the emissions cuts achieved within the UK to date were the result not of deliberate climate change policies but of unrelated factors such as the shift from coal to gas for power generation from the early 1990s and the economic slowdown starting in 2008. Hence it isn't clear that the climate policies introduced so far will be sufficient to keep UK emissions falling in line with its targets.

The Committee on Climate Change, an independent advisory watchdog set up under the Climate Change Act, recently concluded that:

"The pace of underlying emissions reductions achieved in 2010 would, if continued, be insufficient to meet the second and third carbon budgets. In addition, it is not clear whether this rate of progress could be sustained under current policies.  Therefore a step change in the pace of underlying emissions reductions is still required to meet the currently legislated budgets."

• This article was written by Dr Alex Bowen of the Grantham Research Institute at LSE.