Reductions In UK CO2 Emissions Running Out Of Steam

By Paul Homewood



h/t Robin Guenier



From Carbon Brief;


Carbon Brief analysis shows the UK’s CO2 emissions fell for the sixth consecutive year in 2018, the longest series of continuous reductions on record.

The estimated 1.5% reduction was once again driven by falling coal use, down 16% compared to a year earlier, whereas oil and gas use were largely unchanged. However, there are signs the recent run of reductions could be coming to an end, with 2018 seeing the smallest fall in the six-year series.

The UK’s CO2 emissions were an estimated 361m tonnes (MtCO2) in 2018, some 39% below 1990. Outside years with general strikes, this would be the lowest since 1888, when the first-ever Football League match was played and Tower Bridge was being built in London.

These findings are based on Carbon Brief analysis of newly released energy use figures from the UK’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The department will publish its own CO2 estimates on 28 March.

Falling down

The UK’s CO2 emissions have now been falling for six consecutive years, the longest run of reductions in records going back to 1850 (the blue area in the chart, below).

There were particularly large falls in 2014 (8.7%) and 2016 (5.9%), with 2018 seeing a more modest 1.5% reduction, according to Carbon Brief’s analysis. This means the UK’s CO2 emissions stood 39% below 1990 levels at an estimated 361MtCO2 in 2018 (yellow line).

This is the lowest since 1888, outside three years of economic collapse during strikes by coal miners and other workers in 1893, 1921 and 1926, each of which is prominent on the chart, below.

The 1.5% reduction in the UK’s CO2 emissions in 2018 is the smallest decline over the past six years. This highlights the fact that continued cuts cannot be taken for granted.

Still, since 1990, the UK has cut its emissions faster than any other major economy in the world, even as its GDP has continued to grow. Recent Carbon Brief analysis suggests reduced energy demand and a shift to cleaner sources of electricity explain most of the CO2 reductions since 1990.

Per-capita emissions in the UK fell to 5.4tCO2 in 2018, the lowest since 1858, when the population was less than half its current level. On this measure, the UK now ranks alongside France and well below China (around 7tCO2 per capita), but roughly three times the level in India (1.8tCO2).



It is notable that emissions began falling sharply in the 1970s, as a direct result of North Sea gas replacing coal usage.

A renewed “dash for gas” in the 1990s also contributed to the fall.

Carbon Brief’s analysis is based only on government data up to Q3, so it is a waste of time trying to prejudge the full year outcome, as they have done.

My post from last October in response to Claire Perry is still relevant, so I have copied it below:


The message is clear – we can keep cutting emissions without harm to the economy, just as we supposedly have in the past.

But a look at the actual numbers tells a rather different story.

First, the basic numbers:

Between 1990 and 2016, emissions of CO2 (ie not all GHGs) fell from 596 to 356 MtCO2. (Latest data is only available up to 2016).

Nearly all of the reduction occurred in two sectors, industrial and power.



Emissions of CO2 from industry fell by 63 MtCO2 up to 2016. This drop emissions  was a steady process, beginning around 2001. It is hard to see that this is anything other than the result of industrial decline. According to BEIS, energy consumption by industrial fell from 34.6 to 23.1 Mtoe during that period.

Of course, companies are always looking at ways to save energy, as I can personally attest from my years in the steel industry in the 1970s and 80s. But such savings tended to be more than offset by increased production.

Whatever the factors behind this decline, it certainly cannot be claimed by Perry as a positive benefit of her climate policies.

That brings us to the power sector, where emissions fell by 137 MtCO2 between 1990 and 2016. This figure can be neatly divided into two distinct segments:

  • 1990 to 2009 – 52 MtCO2
  • 2009 to 2016 – 85 MtCO2

The only significant change to the electricity mix prior to 2009 was a major shift from coal power to CCGT. Coal power virtually halved from 234 to 120 TWh, whilst CCGT rose from virtually zero to 159 TWh.

Total generation also rose by 40 TWh. Renewables were still in their infancy in 2009, so the vast bulk of the emission savings were the result of the switch from coal to gas, the dash for gas as it was called at the time, which began in earnest in 1993.

As in the US with their shale gas revolution, switching from coal to gas resulted in cheaper power and reduced emissions. Again, Perry cannot claim this as the result of climate policy.

With coal power now down to 21 TWh last year, there is obviously little scope for any more emissions from that direction.

The second period since 2009 is more complicated, but the changes in generation are shown below:



Obviously the switch to wind/solar has been a major contributory factor to the reduction in emissions, as has reduced consumption (for whatever reason). Increased imports has also helped to reduce UK emissions, regardless of how they were generated.

Equally, biomass also counts as zero emissions, but we know that this is far from the case in real life.

If we go back and summarise the emission changes since 1990, we can make some educated guesses:

  • Reduced industrial energy consumption: –63 MtCO2
  • Dash for gas 1990 to 2009: – 52 MtCO2
  • Wind/Solar: – 42 MtCO2
  • Reduced electricity consumption: – 20 MtCO2
  • Increased electricity imports: – 9 MtCO2
  • Biomass: – 14 MtCO2
  • LULUCF (Land use changes etc): – 16 MtCO2
  • Others : – 24 MtCO2

Total emissions have been cut by 240 MtCO2 since 1990, but adding biomass back into the figures as real emissions, the cut is only 226 MtCO2.

Of this, arguably only the saving of 42 MtCO2 from wind and solar can be said to be a direct result of govt policy. And this has been achieved only at great cost to the economy.

In terms of what is sustainable into the future, even if the power sector was totally decarbonised ( a highly unlikely prospect in the foreseeable future), we would only save a further 66 MtCO2.

The reality is that the bulk of emission savings since 1990 have not been the result of renewable energy, nor of any government action. Instead they have arisen because of a mix of unconnected events, which either cannot be repeated or we would not want to see be.

To pretend that we can carry on cutting emissions just as we did in the past and without any damage to the economy is mendacious in the extreme. 


Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre comes to similar conclusions:




In other words, as New Scientist explains:

What’s more, if you look at the actual emissions the UK is responsible for, rather than just the emissions from its territory, there’s been hardly any decline in recent decades, according to a recent tweet from Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. In other words, the UK’s apparent success in cutting emissions is mostly a result of the decline of its manufacturing industries.



As Carbon Brief point out, most of the recent reduction in emissions have come from reduced coal use. With emissions from coal now standing at just 27 Mt CO2, there is now little scope for more savings.



The low hanging fruit has now been picked, and to make further large scale cuts in CO2 will be much more difficult and increasingly costly.


March 5, 2019 at 07:00AM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: