Accounting matters: Is the UK taking enough responsibility for their share in global greenhouse gas emissions?

Photo of Lisa Winkler in the countryside.

Imperial undergraduate Lisa Winkler, who recently completed an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme at the Grantham Institute, blogs on her experience combining climate science and policy, and why accounting matters when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

I joined the Grantham Institute as an undergraduate student looking to gain experience in the field of climate science and policy. Growing up, I often felt anxious about climate change and the uncertainties that come with it, but I found comfort in actively working on the issue. This included educating myself, making lifestyle changes and thinking about what climate change related work I could do after graduating. As a physics student, I’ve been learning about how the components of our planet are connected and affect each other, but this has only exacerbated my feelings of urgency toward tackling climate change. When I realised that scientific evidence can impact policy, and potentially create rapid, tangible change, I decided to explore the area of climate science and policy to see whether I would enjoy working in it.

Imperial offers a placement, known as a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme), that allows students like myself, curious about a specific research area, to spend 6-12 weeks on a project set by a supervisor within the field. I spent my time with Dr Joeri Rogelj and Alyssa Gilbert at the Grantham Institute. During my placement, I decided to focus on the question: how do we determine what country is responsible for what emissions? For example, if a car is manufactured in Germany, using parts made in the United States, then driven in the United Kingdom and disposed of in China, what country is responsible for the emissions associated with that car?

Accounting matters

Officially, emissions are assigned to the country in which they are released. So, the UK’s emissions include all those released within the borders of the UK, and this forms the boundary for the legally-binding target to reduce emissions to net-zero by 2050. This is known as ‘territorial accounting’ and is the standard set by the United Nations for greenhouse gas emissions. In the example of the car, only the emissions released when driving the car are attributed to the UK. This can lead to ‘off-shoring’. When products consumed in one country are manufactured and disposed of elsewhere, the emissions and environmental impacts of those products are transferred to other countries, even though the products are actually serving the lifestyles of UK citizens. Of course, manufacturing and disposal of products are services that contribute to the other country’s economy, potentially benefitting its citizens, but this does not address the fact that a product used in the UK has released greenhouse gases elsewhere.

Taking responsibility for emissions

The UK’s current accounting method and net-zero target does not take full responsibility for many of the activities the country is involved in. If we are to have any chance of limiting climate change, nations like the UK, with considerable influence and a large share of historic emissions, must take a much broader role in reducing emissions associated with what is purchased, traded and produced by the country. To address this, along with my supervisors, I have designed a wider accounting approach that incorporates all the greenhouse gases the UK may be involved in emitting. Our working paper outlines actions that can be taken by the UK to take full responsibility for its emissions and create a net-zero economy. This approach is called the Emissions Responsibility Approach. More details about it can be found here:  Emissions Responsibility Accounting: A new look at emissions accounting

What’s next…

I greatly enjoyed working at the Grantham Institute as it felt like I had the freedom to learn. My working paper was used as reading material in a round-table discussion for policymakers and industry leaders, so I hope that my ideas will be used to help reduce emissions in the world.

If you are a student interested in climate change, I strongly recommend a summer research placement at the Grantham Institute as it will undoubtedly broaden your horizons. I hope to continue down this path within my career as I’d like to be a part of creating a healthy and vibrant future for us all.

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