climate change energy

The history written in Britain’s carbon emissions

Last week I was preparing a presentation on climate change, and one of the slides uses a graph from Carbon Brief. They created it to highlight how Britain’s CO2 emissions are now equivalent to what they were in 1888.

This is something I’ve been tracking and writing about more or less annually, but this year I was struck by the way that historical events are captured in the carbon emissions data. Prompted by the fact that the Coronavirus will likely leave a down-spike in emissions for 2020, I looked back over the past 150 years or so to see what else we can read in the graph. I’ve numbered some events in the image below.


1 – We begin with a long and almost interrupted rise in emissions as Britain industrialised through the Victorian age.

2 – Emissions begin to tumble during the course of the First World War, as consumption falls and rationing is introduced. Also relevant here is the impact of ‘Spanish flu’, which struck in 1918 and killed more people worldwide than the war. Unlike COVID-19, young adults were the most vulnerable.

3 – The interwar years are painful ones. The 1920s are often portrayed as a glamorous time, but the reality in Britain was high inequality and unemployment. Turmoil in the 1920s gives us two pronounced dips in CO2 emissions. The first is the 1921 coal miners’ strike, the second the general strike of 1926. In both cases, disruption to the supply of coal cuts emissions dramatically. Then came the Great Depression, and the collapse in the US financial markets led to Britain’s exports drying up. Emissions fell further, and only began to rise again as the economy began to recovery in the mid 30s.

4 – War interrupts the rise in emissions and they fall in the mid 40s. Once peace is secured, the post-war reconstruction drives a sharp increase in greenhouse gases. Throughout the 1950s and 60s more people gain access to heating and hot water, household appliances and private cars. It adds up to a mountain of emissions that took decades to climb down from.

5 – The peak of that mountain is 1973, which is the year when an embargo on oil from the Middle East led to sky-rocketing oil prices and economic slump. The use of oil as a weapon forced a rethink in energy. Smaller cars became more popular, and 1973 remains the peak year for Britain’s oil consumption. Coal begins a long decline around this time, driven first by the expansion of nuclear power, and then the rising use of North Sea gas through the 80s and 90s.

6 – Towards the end of the story, we see an acceleration in the decline of CO2 emissions. That’s due to the rise of renewable energy, starting with the introduction of EU clean energy targets in 2007 and the Climate Change Act in 2008. From a low base, renewable energy displaces coal and drives emissions all the way back to where they were in the 19th century.

What comes next? I expect a dip because of Covid-19 and the recession which it will trigger. It may be temporary, but if we can direct stimulus funding towards clean technology during the downturn, it may prove to be another step change in emissions. The outline of Mount Carbon’s foothills is still ours to write. Hopefully it will be a smooth and rapid descent towards zero.





  1. Very interesting! I am looking to do similar research in to the history of carbon emissions in the Caribbean. While I am aware that the region’s carbon emissions are small in comparison. I think that it would provide an interesting picture of development in the region. If you know of any useful sources/data that could help me in my research it would be greatly appreciated.

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