climate change

How much of your carbon footprint is government services?

After last week’s post on carbon offsetting, asked for some clarification on the amount of our carbon footprints that can be attributed to government services. Since it’s not information that’s readily available online, I thought it was probably worth re-posting my reply as a separate post.

Each of us has a carbon footprint, a quantity of CO2 emissions that we are responsible for. There are several components to it, since most activity involves carbon emissions somewhere along the line. Energy use is the biggest, transport usually second, with food and consumption of goods and services rounding it out. At the back, and often forgotten by carbon calculators, is a share of government services.

It seems unfair to have to shoulder the blame for the government’s emissions, until you think about what that actually means: schools and hospitals, the police, street cleaning, libraries, job centres, parks, law courts, traffic lights, the coastguard and the armed forces, as well as Whitehall and the local council. Considering how much the government provides for us, taking responsibility for our share of its emissions is not as onerous as may first appear. But how much would that be?

In his book Carbon Detox, George Marshall adds a tonne to each of our accounts. The , a  project from the, puts it at 1.1 tonnes, or 8% of our footprints. Both of those refer to central government, but local government is separate.

There should of course be some official government calculations of its emissions to guide us, and DEFRA does indeed compile these. The most accessible accounts I’ve come across are from 2008, () and include this graph:

In 2008, central government emitted 64.7 million tonnes of greenhouse gases – 77% of which is CO2, if you’re just after the carbon figure. Dividing that by the UK population of around 62 million, you get around 0.9 – 1.1 tonnes each.

However, local government essentially doubles that figure to 120.8 million tonnes. To put that in perspective, Britain’s emissions are just over , so the government is responsible for about a fifth of our national footprint.

If you want to see what they are spending the carbon budget on, here’s a graph. A more detailed breakdown in the report shows that 3% goes on education, 15% on construction and commercial services, and 10% on “aircraft and spacecraft”.

The good news is that central government has been working on its emissions. Last year’s commitment to 10:10 netted a from government buildings, as a start.

The bad news is that the local government component depends almost entirely on your local council. Some are highly progressive, and others are really dragging their heels. If you take an interest in these things, you probably know which side your council falls on, and whether they’re more likely to be found pushing road-building projects than promoting insulation or funding renewable energy. I certainly know which way my own council leans, despite the best efforts of those tasked with keeping it on the agenda. Your local council should be keeping track of their emissions though, so the information will be available even if the will to change is still lacking.

In short, it’s hard to get a specific UK average, but your share of emissions from government services is somewhere between 1 and 2 tonnes.

If you want a properly scientific answer, you’ll have to get stuck into statistics.

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