Opinion: Does the UK have it tougher?

Does the UK have it tougher?

By Chris Friedler

Getting almost 200 countries to agree on anything is, it seems, to put it mildly, quite difficult. With reducing emissions, one essential barrier alongside economic status, effective governance, political will, cultural values and whatever else is simply these two things – what the makeup of emissions in a country is, and how much that country can take emissions out of the atmosphere. These can vary hugely between countries, so is it the case that the UK could be at a disadvantage from other countries tackling the same crisis?

Starting with the makeup of emissions, the UK in 2016 had a pretty mixed picture from the four biggest sectors, looking like this:


If we glance around at other countries, we can quickly see the picture looks totally different:




The USA has made much slower progress nationally than the UK in implementing new renewable power, although that hides much more progress in regions within the US. With the US’s dependency on petrol based cars and trucks, transport emissions are clearly more of a problem, and with a warmer climate, heating emissions from buildings are far smaller. Germany meanwhile has even more problems with emissions from electricity, struggling far more than the UK and US in closing down the coal fired power plants on which it currently relies, despite an impressive renewable capacity. France has quite the reversal of problems, with a very small amount of emissions from the power sector, with the emphasis being more on transport and a much larger contribution from agriculture than the other countries here. From Germany’s coal plants to France’s polluting fields from Norway’s industrial emissions to Ireland’s agriculture, every country can tell a different story about where their climate priorities are. And that isn’t even including developing or transition countries from the major players like China and India to moderate Iran and Saudi Arabia to minor like Kenya and Tanzania.

So why point out these differences, like a countrified version of top trumps (there’s a pun to about a certain president there)? First of all, it is important to remember that while all countries need to decarbonise power, transport and so on, their priorities will be in wildly different places depending on how their emissions are made up. But most of all, solutions for the power and transport sectors are easier to address than those for industry and agriculture. Most forms of renewable and low carbon power are or are rapidly approaching cost competitiveness, with widespread deployment across the world – there are very few solutions currently for decarbonising iron and steel smelting, and realistic cost competitive and tested solutions are still far off.

So does the UK have it particularly tough here? Both power and transport IMG_0253(technologically anyway) have clear solutions in low carbon power and electric vehicles, so while countries like Germany and France may have a higher or lower proportion respectively of emissions from power, the corresponding emissions from transport tend to balance it out with the UK, meaning many countries emit around half of their emissions from these two sectors. There are certainly countries that can sway this – Poland’s emissions are dominated from the power sector and Ireland’s from the agriculture sector, but overall the UK is in much the same boat as comparable countries.

OK, but what about ways to take emissions out of the atmosphere? The UK is a small, densely populated country. Surely countries like Canada and Sweden, with their forests, can use their land space to absorb carbon as a sink? That’s certainly true. Canada technically is a ‘net negative’ country, meaning that any emissions that it emits and more will be absorbed by the quantity of their forests and other terrain. But most countries aren’t Canada – while the UK and other countries’ ability to reduce carbon by absorbing it straight back into the land is very welcome, few countries are scarcely populated enough for this to give a sufficient advantage. France, Germany and many of our European neighbours like us have negligible emissions reduced this way.

The UK is not a hard done by country that the rest of the world has picked on when it comes to climate change – nor is it a rich country complaining loudly for no reason. The story of the UK looking wistfully over the sea to wonder if other countries are getting on easier with this ‘climate change thing’ is a human one. The other man’s grass is always greener, so they say. The UK’s problems are different, sure, to other countries – but for the most part, similar in the way we approach them. And even if the UK did have a particularly difficult time getting emissions down, it probably matter anyway. After all, it doesn’t matter where this pollution comes from – it’s still pollution, and it recognises no national boundaries.