Report calls for smaller, slower UK trade

A new report from the Green House think tank has called for slowdown in the UK’s overseas trade to reduce its carbon impact, making policy recommendations for how the UK’s trade can become slower, shorter and smaller.

Shipping containers
Shipping containers
Green World

The UK needs to conduct its overseas trade over shorter distances, at a slower pace and on a smaller scale in order to reduce its carbon footprint, according to a new report by Green House and the Green European Foundation.

Entitled ‘Trade and Investment Requirements for Zero Carbon’, the report provides a toolkit for policy-makers to help them enact reforms and policies that will allow the UK to address the climate implications of global trade, as well as addressing wider environmental impacts and inequalities.

Analysing customs declaration data, the report found that the UK’s imports and exports generated 36 million tonnes of carbon emissions in 2019, with trade from countries outside the EU generating a higher carbon footprint than trade within the EU, suggesting that trade with our closest neighbours or producing locally is less harmful to the environment.

The report outlines the carbon intensity of different modes of shipment – airfreight has a CO2 intensity 262 times higher than oil tankers and 36 times higher than rail transport – emphasising that faster transport results in a higher environmental impact.

To guide policy-makers the report makes a number of recommendations for government and society to make the UK’s trade slower, shorter and smaller. For government recommendations include ending subsidies for aviation and fossil fuels, replacing GDP with a measure of wellbeing, and introducing an escalating carbon tax and emissions budgets for national government departments.

Meanwhile, broader societal policy recommendations include public education campaigns to encourage reuse and repair and seasonal eating, legislating to require surplus capacity in key sectors of the economy and introducing 5/10/15 year product guarantees.

The report has been released as Extinction Rebellion returned to the streets this week to demand a Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill to bring the UK’s climate change legislation in line with the reality of climate breakdown and a new Trade Bill is passing through the UK Parliament.

Peter Sims, one of the report’s authors, said: "Our analysis highlights how we can stop trade and investment locking-in carbon emissions. In this report we present a toolkit of pointers to help policy-makers shift from a blind pursuit of growth to face up to the climate emergency and respect planetary boundaries.”

Co-author Jonathan Essex added: “Our trade carbon footprint must be addressed as part of plans to decarbonise the UK economy. But the impacts of trade still lie completely outside the UK’s climate action plans, and international climate agreements exclude shipping, aviation and trade policy. Cutting our trade carbon footprint will mean less long-distance trade and shorter supply chains using slower transport.”   

Ellie Chowns, International Spokesperson for the Green Party of England and Wales, wrote in the Foreword: “The current thrust 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, and this report sets out how this can be done.”

You can read the report in full on the Green House website.