A Petition to the UK Parliament to debate the need for labelling of embedded GHG emissions in consumer goods

Does anyone know the impact on the climate from buying imported consumer goods and services?

Dr Alan Jones, PhD. CEng. FIET.

1 Summary 


Consumer goods imported into the UK to display the value of embedded greenhouse gases (GHGs). [1]


2 Introduction


The recent climate change summit, COP26 in Glasgow, was all about reducing emissions from goods and services consumed and manufactured in a particular country - in this case the UK, along with emissions from transport and heating arising in that same country.  These are known as territorial emissions and while UK has done well at reducing these emissions it has not done so well at reducing emissions tied up or embedded in goods and services imported into the UK for use by UK citizens.  This petition address that loophole, especially for consumer goods.


2 What we want the Government to do?


All consumer goods imported into the UK should display at the point of sale, on sales literature and on any product packaging the embedded GHG emissions of that good.  The value of  embedded GHGs should take account of; the sourcing of raw materials; the transportation of raw materials and any packaging to the transformation point; the transformation of raw materials into a finished, saleable packaged product and; the transportation of the finished, packaged good from the point of transformation to the UK.  


Calculation of the embedded GHG emissions and how this should be displayed in on-line adverts, and retail sales literature as well as on any packaging should follow guidance as directed by the UK Government.


3  Why the Government or Parliament should do it?


The consumer has an important role to play in helping the UK meet Net Zero by 2050 through lifestyle choices made by its citizens.  Examples include the adoption of electric vehicles or changing from oil/gas heating to no or low-carbon technologies.  In supermarkets: choosing products with low transport miles or selecting plant-based protein alternatives etc., all help make a difference.  These measures, which collectively form part of the UK’s territorial emissions [2], reflect the concerned individual’s attempt to minimise their impact on the climate by reducing personal emissions.  However, when it comes to imported consumer goods even the conscientious individual has no idea of the level of embedded GHG emissions associated with the goods they might wish to buy.  


This petition calls for the UK government to make it easier for the consumer to make more informed lifestyle choices – trading price, quality and performance on the one hand against embedded GHG emissions on the other.  This can be achieved simply by ensuring all imported consumer goods display the level of embedded GHG at the point of sale, in retail literature and on any packaging.


The background to this Petition is as follows: in moving from a manufacturing base towards a service economy the UK has become the world leader in lowering territorial carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions through reducing the energy intensity of the economy as well as the carbon intensity of the energy mix.   However, this gain has been at the expense of rising  embedded GHG emissions - as a percentage of the UK’s GHG carbon footprint, that is tied up in consumer goods manufactured in and exported from developing countries that use less efficient manufacturing processes and rely primarily on fossil-fuel as an energy source.  For instance, in 2018 embedded GHG emissions associated with imported goods and services accounted for almost 43% of the UKs carbon footprint (measured by GHG emission), with China alone accounting for 37MtCO2e [3].


Thus, while outsourcing much of its energy intensive manufacturing processes to developing countries has helped the UK reduce its territorial emissions it has, inadvertently, raised the level of global GHG emissions from where they would have otherwise been.  Expressed another way, simply measuring territorial emissions makes importing nations, such as the UK, look good while failing to capture the rising global emissions embedded in the international trade in goods and services.  Ignoring embedded emissions also removes consumers and their buying preferences from the process of aiding global emissions reduction. 




[1] Greenhouse gases (GHGs) refer to the combined equivalent emissions arising from the seven main GHGs, with carbon dioxide (CO2) being the main one.  The value of GHGs is commonly expressed as the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

[2] Territorial GHG emissions represent emissions produced from UK manufactured goods and services consumed by UK residents, UK household heating emissions and transport emissions from UK domestic households. [Online] Available:  http://www.emissions.leeds.ac.uk  [Accessed 30 December 2021].

[3] DEFRA (2021) UK’s Carbon Footprint 1997 – 2018. [Online] Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/uks-carbon-footprint [Accessed 1 January 2022].


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