A photo of a DHL cargo plane

It’s harvest season in the UK, fruit is ripening in our remaining orchards and pickers are hard at work in the fields. But go into a supermarket and you’re likely to find the shelves piled high with apples from France, South Africa and New Zealand, green beans from Kenya and asparagus from Peru.

In 2019 just 16% of the fruit and 54% of vegetables consumed in the UK were grown here. Our climate is ideal for growing apples and pears, yet last year we imported 438,000 tonnes more than we exported. And beans and asparagus added 270,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) to our carbon footprint.

Flying food across the globe is an example of pointless trade. If we produced food and other commodities for our domestic market first, and switched international trade from air to sea, we could slash carbon emissions.

Yet the trend is going in the opposite direction. While lockdown measures put in place in response to Covid-19 have meant a dramatic fall in air travel, demand for air cargo has shot up – particularly (but not only) for personal protective equipment manufactured in Asia and needed in Europe and North America. Airlines have been refitting planes to carry cargo inside the cabin instead of, or alongside, passengers, locking in our unhealthy airfreight habit.

The carbon footprint of international trade

Green House colleague Peter Sims and I analysed UK customs declaration data for 2019 to estimate the trade carbon footprint of UK imports and exports. This is part of Green House’s Climate Emergency Economy project, which we run with support from the Green European Foundation.

Our analysis, which will be formally launched at an online event on 25 September, found that transporting all the UK’s imports and exports generated a staggering 36 million tonnes CO2e.

Top of the list – by weight and carbon footprint – are fossil fuels, reflecting the huge subsidies their extraction receives worldwide. The report also highlights the massive quantity of wood we import, in the form of pellets, mostly to feed power stations – the UK imports more timber to burn than our entire forestry production each year.

The steel industry’s trade carbon footprint was over 2.5 million tonnes CO2e in 2019. Steel is a necessary part of delivering a 100% renewable future – yet the Scottish Government is planning to source wind turbine parts from Indonesia.

We import steel, and the raw materials to make it, from as far away as Brazil and Australia. Yet we currently export four-fifths of our scrap steel, which could be an important resource for making new steel. Shifting from using imported iron ore in coal-powered blast furnaces to recycling scrap metal in renewable-powered electric arc furnaces would reduce emissions from the steel industry by at least 75%.

Join us to discuss how to fix this

The solutions are out there – but most of all we need to shrink the scale and speed of our trade and shorten the global supply chains that the UK buys and sells into.

Yet emissions from shipping, aviation and trade policy are still excluded from international climate agreements – and therefore don’t appear in national climate action plans. Governments like ours can claim they are making progress towards net zero targets while the impact of our trade continues to grow.

Right now, trade and climate negotiation are happening in parallel, independently of each other, and pulling us in very different directions.

With a new Climate & Ecological Emergency Bill on the table – and the new post-Brexit Trade Bill is already progressing through the UK parliament – we need to join the dots develop a real climate emergency economy for the UK. And as host of the COP26 next year, the UK government must start to take responsibility for global trade emissions and ensure aviation and shipping don’t remain off the table in international climate talks.

As Ellie Chowns, International Spokesperson for the Green Party of England and Wales, wrote in the Foreword to our report: “The current direction of UK trade policy – tied to airport expansion, giant container ports, and race-to-the-bottom trade deals with the US and other countries – is taking the UK in the wrong direction. Urgent action is needed to change course.”

What would this action look like? Please join us to share ideas on the policy changes needed. We’re holding an online conference on Friday 25 September, where we’ll be joined by politicians, campaigners and others to talk through these issues. Colleagues from Ireland and the Netherlands will present work they’ve done on this area. We’d love to have you there.

PS. We hope you enjoyed this article. Bright Green has got big plans for the future to publish many more articles like this. You can help make that happen. Please donate to Bright Green now.

Image credit: Raimond Spekking – Creative Commons