climate change

Britain’s falling carbon emissions

A couple of weeks ago I was talking about how Ethiopia has been decoupling economic growth and carbon emissions with a friend, and commenting on how rare that story was. I suggested that Britain might also be decoupling, due to the falling use of coal. It was too early to tell, but if we waited a few more weeks we’d find out. With those few weeks passed, Carbon Brief have their advance estimates and here’s the good news: Britain’s CO2 emissions continue to tumble sharply.

UK carbon emissions have been falling for a while, partly due to offshoring heavy industry, but in 2014 we saw a steeper decline as coal power stations were closed – a record fall in a growing economy in fact, at 9.2%. Coal power has continued to decline and that accelerated decarbonisation continues for a third year in a row.

This is positive news for Britain’s carbon target, which is an 80% reduction on 1990 levels by 2050. Last year’s drop takes us to around 36%. A couple more years like this and we’ll be halfway to our target, with carbon emissions back to 19th century levels.

The bad news is that this story is all about coal. Coal consumption halved last year, as the energy sector continued to phase out coal power, and the Redcar steel plant closed down. But energy generation is the easiest sector to reduce emissions. The second half of that 80% target will be much harder.

So far, the other sectors of the economy aren’t really following suit. Beyond energy generation, we need to address heating. Here things are moving painfully slowly. CO2 emissions from the residential sector have only fallen by single figures since 1990, and road transport emissions haven’t shifted at all. That’s why, out of the many topics this blog covers, buildings and transport are the two that I try and write about every week.

Unless we can get things moving faster on renovation and household efficiency, and on car culture, our progress on emissions is going to stall. So let’s build on the start we’ve made, complete the transition away from coal, and up our game on housing and transport.


  1. Both of these will need either regulation or financial incentives, I think. Vehicles in the UK have had increasing serious requirements made re emissions from the EU, but we are leaving the EU, of course. No doubt, the ‘market’ will ensure most vehicles sold here will meet EU requirements anyway. There used to be a fuel tax escalator; politically unpopular but potentially effective are reducing fuel use. Ideally we need an economy that reduces the need for so much driving and carting of stuff about, and also a smaller population, but neither look very likely in the short term.
    As for buildings, new builds or major alterations might be conditional on serious levels of insulation (eg passive haus) and / or fitment of renewable power generation (Solar PV etc). However, most buildings that will be in use in the next 80 years already exist. So maybe we need a gas price escalator to wean people off the stuff and / or a Council Tax escalator for those with poor EPC standards.
    All very unpopular but can anybody think of a nice way of incentivising people when simple cost savings (from using less fuel) don’t seem enough?

  2. Given it’s global emissions that matter, it’s instructive to put this into a wider context – for example, by comparing the UK with India. As your chart shows, the UK has reduced its CO2 emissions by over 30 percent since 1990 (even more since 1970). India in contrast, whose emissions were much the same as the UK’s in 1990, has increased its emissions by nearly 300 percent since then.

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