Opinion

Carbon footprints: Surprising results in Scotland

A device being installed at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney
Tony Mackay

I have to read a stack of reports each month. The latest pile has included a Competent Person’s Report on a heavy oil field in Madagascar, three on Armenia’s energy industry, one on the decommissioning market in the North Sea and another on proposed changes in Norway’s Oil Fund following the change in Government there.

The most interesting, however, was an academic article entitled “Carbon footprints of cities and other human settlements in the United Kingdom” in the journal Environmental Research Letters. I had never seen the journal before but wanted to read the piece, having seen a brief summary in a daily newspaper.

Jan Minx and nine other academics have calculated the average carbon footprints of people living in every local authority area in the UK, including the 32 in Scotland. There is no space here to discuss the methodology but it seems to be very thorough and academically accepted.

I found the results fascinating. The UK average was 12.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person.

19 of the 32 local authority areas in Scotland had carbon footprints above that average. The highest was Dundee, with 13.82 tonnes, followed by Orkney. I was very surprised by the latter, partly because Orkney is at the forefront of the marine energy industry in Scotland.

The area with the lowest carbon footprint was North Lanarkshire with 11.79 tonnes, which also surprised me. Others below the average were Moray, East and West Lothian, and East Ayrshire.

One of the main conclusions of the study is that lifestyle is more important than geography. I assumed that the cities would generate more CO2 emissions but that is not necessarily the case.

A reason for that is that people in cities and large towns share resources more than in rural areas, a clear example being petrol consumption.

Key factors in determining the level of carbon emissions are income, car ownership and education. On the other hand, carbon footprints usually decrease with household size. These indicators make it very surprising that Dundee is the worst area in the country.

I was puzzled by how the academics dealt with big industrial polluters such the Peterhead and Longannet power stations. They have used a computer model which allocates the emissions to the final consumption of goods and services, such as electricity in this instance, rather than their geographical origin.

The Scottish Government recently published a report on “Scotland’s Carbon Footprint 1998-2010”, which claimed that the total emissions in 2010 were 6% lower than in 1998. The report states that they peaked in 2007 and fell by a massive 19% in 2009.

Another Government report in June claimed that in 2011 the total of 51.3 million tonnes CO2 equivalent was 9.9% down on 2010. This report covers six greenhouse gases of which carbon dioxide accounts for about 75%.

It claims that there was an 18% fall in emissions from the energy industry and 21% in the residential. Both these falls are incredibly large, although the reduction in coal-fired electricity generation has made a big difference.

However, the methodology in these reports seems very dubious to me and well below international standards. I suspect that the Scottish Government has been putting pressure on the researchers involved to present the statistics in the best possible light to show good progress in meeting the ambitious CO2 reduction targets.

For example, the 2011 report also states that when emissions are adjusted to take account of trading in the ludicrous and justly criticised EU Emission Trading System (EU ETS) the fall was just 2.9% and not 9.9%. The former seems a much more realistic estimate.

There are many dubious assumptions in these two official reports, which detract from the useful information and analysis in them.

We have had the same in recent Scottish Government reports on the oil industry, notably regarding future oil revenues.

The latter are a political hot potato in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, so it might be understandable that there has been increasing political bias in what used to be widely regarded as independent reports.

I believe it is a great pity, however, that such bias has been introduced into less politically contentious reports on carbon emissions.

Tony Mackay is the MD of energy economists Mackay Consultants

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