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A teenage climate activist who gained world recognition for her school strikes is claiming the UK has overstated how much it has reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

The gases – mainly carbon dioxide – from burning fossil fuels contribute to global warming when released into the atmosphere. The UK’s current target is to cut 80% of emissions from 1990 levels by 2050.

The government says greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 42% since 1990.

But Greta Thunberg told MPs in Westminster that the true reduction was more like 10%.

Two very different figures – can both be right?

It all depends on what you count as a country’s emissions.

Miss Thunberg says the 42% figure excludes emissions from international aviation, shipping and imports, accusing the UK government of “very creative carbon accounting”.

She is right to say that the figure misses out these things.

It refers to the UK’s “territorial emissions” – that is a measure of what happens within the country’s borders, including things such as heating and powering homes, transport, domestic industry and agriculture.

The UK is not unique in producing its figures like this, though. It is sticking to internationally agreed standards.

Each year, countries that are signed up to an international agreement called the Kyoto Protocol submit their overall emissions figures to the UN. That reporting is all done on a territorial basis – so they all exclude international aviation, shipping and imports.

Miss Thunberg did also criticise other countries for using the same methods.

What happens if you factor these in?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), produces figures on “consumption emissions” – a measure of emissions based on everything the UK uses, including imports. These are not used as official figures though.

On this measure, the UK’s estimated overall carbon footprint in 2016 was about 10% lower than in 1997 when it first published these figures.

In 2016, the UK consumed an estimated total of 784 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – more than one-and-a-half times the 468 million tonnes from territorial emissions alone. Read more

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