Cleaner electricity and reduced energy demand were the two major factors driving a 38% drop in the United Kingdom’s carbon dioxide emissions between 1990 and 2017, from 600 to 367 megatonnes, the biggest reduction in any industrialized country.
Emissions peaked in 1973, and the declines “have persisted despite an economic recovery from the financial crisis a decade ago,” Carbon Brief reports. “Where earlier reductions were largely negated by rising imports, the past decade has seen genuine cuts in the amount of CO2 for which the UK is responsible.”
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The trend is likely to continue through 2025, when the country concludes its phaseout of coal-fired electricity generation.
The analysis shows that “emissions would have been twice as large today if underlying factors had not changed,” Carbon Brief notes. “Electricity sector emissions would have been nearly four times higher.” Out of the total emission reduction, the UK achieved:
- 36% by replacing coal with natural gas and renewable energy;
- 31% by cutting fuel consumption by business and industry;
- 18% by reducing electricity use in industry and the residential sector;
- 7% by reducing per capita kilometres driven, and through the introduction of more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Carbon Brief notes that fossil-generated electricity accounted for 20% of UK emissions in 2017, down from 34% in 1990. “Coal’s share of this mix has fallen precipitously since 1990, down from 67% of total generation to only 5% today. Oil used for electricity generation has also declined, down from 11% of generation in 1990 to less than 1% today. These have largely been replaced by gas, wind, and bioenergy.”
A comparison with business-as-usual trends as of 1990 shows what the country’s power sector would have looked like if the transition hadn’t taken place. “Coal would have remained king, with gas, wind, bioenergy and solar all remaining negligible,” reporter and data scientist Zeke Hausfather notes. “Nuclear generation would have remained largely the same, with somewhat higher output in recent years.”
In the residential sector, the analysis attributes reductions in electricity demand to a variety of factors, including efficient light bulbs and appliances and better insulation in electrically-heated homes. In industry, the improvements came from increased efficiency in manufacturing and an economy-wide shift from heavy industry toward less energy-intensive advanced manufacturing and services.
But “without the effects of gas, renewables, and reduced electricity use, CO2 emissions from the electricity sector could have been expected to continue increasing in line with past trends,” Hausfather writes. “By 2017, electricity sector CO2 emissions would then have been almost four times higher than they are today.”
He adds that standard greenhouse gas emissions accounting excludes the CO2 embodied in imported goods, as well as life cycle emissions from bioenergy grown overseas and the national share of aviation and shipping. Imports are particularly important, “as the past few decades have seen a dramatic rise in exports of consumer goods from countries such as China, which has a very coal-intensive electricity generation mix.” The analysis shows the UK’s domestic emission reductions between 1990 and 2007 largely cancelled out by imported CO2. “However, over the past decade, both domestic and consumption emissions have fallen by similar amounts.”
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