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UK overseas emissions

April 2020: finds that nearly half of UK’s carbon footprint in 2016 originated from ‘hidden emissions’. Hidden emissions refer to carbon released during manufacturing of goods in the country of origin. WWF calls for carbon adjustments for imported goods to ensure UK’s effective carbon neutrality by 2050.


A report commissioned by WWF finds that nearly half of UK’s carbon footprint for traded goods comes from emissions released overseas during manufacturing. Such ‘hidden emissions’ accounted for 46% of the UK’s carbon footprint in 2019 and are primarily derived from goods such as clothing, food, and electronics. Since the 1990s the UK has experienced a shift from manufacturing locally to importing consumer goods. The UKs overall carbon emissions between 1990 and 2016 reduced by 40%, primarily due to the switch away from coal-fired power to gas and renewable sources for electricity. However, the UK’s consumption-based footprint, including ‘hidden emissions’, decreased by only 15% and has experienced a constant rise over recent years.

Implications and opportunities

Accounting for ‘hidden emissions’ would undermine the UK’s achievements in reducing GHG emissions and could compromise the feasibility of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. However, currents targets exclude emissions from imported products and the emissions associated with their manufacture are counted towards the country of origin’s emissions. Many countries of origin are developing nations with less stringent carbon targets and the tendency to prioritise traditional growth strategies over carbon neutrality. These trends could potentially disproportionately shift GHG accounting towards developing nations. WWF recommends managing shared emissions and developing strategies to decarbonise energy, food, transport, and industry systems in both exporting and importing countries. These strategies could include requirements for efficiency, repairability, recyclability and carbon reduction during manufacturing of imported goods such as electronic goods which could lead to border carbon adjustments.


Accounting for carbon emissions in countries of origin and destination would require close collaboration between countries and may be limited by differences in data generation or carbon accounting methods. In light of this, more research will be needed to account for border carbon adjustments in a consistent manner.


WWF (2020). Carbon Footprint: Exploring the UK’s contribution to climate change. Retrieved from

Webster, B., (2020). Half of UK carbon emissions come from overseas.  Retrieved from


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Adele Wiliams

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The views expressed in these external research papers are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.