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Reductions In UK CO2 Emissions Running Out Of Steam

March 5, 2019

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.

  1. manicbeancounter permalink
    March 5, 2019 1:01 pm

    One of the fundamental laws of economics is “the law of diminishing returns”.
    The Stern Review 2006 ignored this when it claimed that the costs of decarbonisation could be kept to 1% of GDP.

  2. March 5, 2019 1:37 pm

    The UK imports a lot more electricity than it used to, but exports some as well e.g. to Ireland.

  3. Coeur de Lion permalink
    March 5, 2019 1:43 pm

    And carbon dioxide is not the Climate Control Knob it once was. The common people have been conned. Not pleasant when they realise why they have lost their jobs

  4. March 5, 2019 1:56 pm

    \\ 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. //
    … Hmm where is the accounting for the construction phase of wind/solar ?
    It is CO2 that was created that would not have been created
    – In the construction phase the CO2 from conventional power has to increase cos of all the extra energy used to make the concrete & steel for wind turbines & towers and solar power infrastructure..

    Now when that GreenPower* does come online then you can turn down the gas and coal , so there is theoretically less CO2 in a year than from keep gas/coal at the old level.

    If we scrapped all GreenPower construction then today’s CO2 would fall, cos we would be cutting concrete & steel production

    The modelling between
    #1 a power network WITH GreenPower
    and #2 a power network WITHOUT GreenPower
    is complex
    but I suspect that in a real world situation and accounting for all factors cradle to grave, you are NOT getting huge CO2 savings.

    * Green Energy could really be called Austerity Energy
    ..cos you get far less energy for each £

  5. March 5, 2019 2:01 pm

    The report is from CarbonPants (the Greenblob PR agency)
    \\ 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* //
    ie wait 3 weeks and they’ll be better data.

    CO2 stats are bogus anyway
    that’s real CO2 coming out of Drax chimneys yet it us counted as zero if it’s from wood burning

  6. March 5, 2019 2:10 pm

    Simon Evans is extremely sloppy in the way he uses the words “greenhouse gases” and CO2 interchangeably

    His tweet
    \\Transport is now the largest source of UK greenhouse gases//

    There are a few greenhouse gases , and CO2 is second behind water vapour.
    A planet would still have greenhouse gas warming if its atmosphere had water vapour and zero CO2.

  7. MrGrimNasty permalink
    March 5, 2019 2:16 pm

    There has been a lot of crazy climate change propaganda in the last 48hrs on the BBC, both implicit and explicit – Australia heat and fires/USA tornadoes/India –

    The most egregiously dishonest was the one on ‘sinking’ Ghoramara – because the sea levels are rising extra rapidly here because of all the extra melt water coming down the river – they said. The reporter pointed to a supposedly 30ft tree just sticking out the water as an example of how fast this was happening – crazy dishonest stuff.

    This story of Ghoramara has appeared frequently over the years – even the BBC’s old articles offer alternative explanations for the erosion – bad farming practices, removing all the mangroves etc. At the end of the day any low silty island in a river delta is going to be temporary. The thing not mentioned was that the delta is sinking fast – and the reasons why – partly man’s fault, but certainly not climate change!

    • dave permalink
      March 5, 2019 2:47 pm

      How can the eustatic, long-run, sea level be changing more in one place than another?

      • MrGrimNasty permalink
        March 5, 2019 7:53 pm

        You can get different rates owing to river flow, currents, tides, el nino, the fact the earth bulges etc. (Everest isn’t the furthest point on earth from the center) – but the BBC report was just a total confusion of factors dishonestly labelled ‘sea level rise because of AGW’.

  8. Phoenix44 permalink
    March 5, 2019 3:17 pm

    I just don’t believe these figures. Were we really emitting more CO2 per person in 1880, when we didn’t have cars, aircraft or electricity (in most homes) and no electricity powering TVs, phones, computers etc? When a large proportion of people still worked in agriculture rather than in offices with lighting, computers, air con etc? When we didn’t have large automated factories using large amounts of energy?

    It is surely not possible?

  9. March 5, 2019 3:49 pm

    When Drax burns wood instead of coal the CO2 goes down ONLY because of an EU accounting fiction. It actually goes up.

    • dave permalink
      March 7, 2019 8:11 am

      This former accountant would give the figure for actual emissions (if known) and divide the destination of it into “permanent addition to stock in the air and water” and “temporary addition to stock in the air and water.” A Note to this would explain that this treatment assumes that EXTRA planting will occur, and the temporary stock will be drained in, say, twenty years. It would also explain that until that draining occurs the temporary stock will play the same role in the dynamic economy of the environment as the permanent stock.

      This former auditor would also say that the accounts are based on submissions by the Management, do not conform to generally accepted accounting principles, and are NOT certified to be true and fair.

  10. Max Sawyer permalink
    March 5, 2019 3:53 pm

    UK CO2 production = 1.4% at most of the global total, so a reduction of 1.5% of that = a global reduction of 0.021%, for which we are paying through the nose. It won’t even be noticed.

  11. Max Sawyer permalink
    March 5, 2019 3:58 pm

    UK CO2 production = 1.4% (at most) of the world’s total. A reduction of 1.5% of that = a global reduction of 0.021%, for which we are paying through the nose on our energy bills. No-one will even notice it.

  12. Max Sawyer permalink
    March 5, 2019 4:01 pm

    Attempt 1 didn’t appear at first. How do I delete an unintentional duplication?

  13. Athelstan. permalink
    March 5, 2019 4:31 pm

    I don’t want UK emissions to fall, I want them way up.

    Lets go back to coal, please.

  14. R2Dtoo permalink
    March 5, 2019 4:32 pm

    The graph looks like the movement of industry to China and East Asia. This morning I shovelled all my doggie-doo over the fence into my neighbour’s yard, so my “doo” went way down. Just as much total “doo” as yesterday in the “hood”, but I’m not contributing! Aren’t I virtuous?

  15. MrGrimNasty permalink
    March 5, 2019 8:11 pm

    EDF just notified me of the price cap rise effect – works out at 11.5% on my usage.

    Might be able to reduce that to merely 10% by switching!

    Worse to come, I’ve heard the standing charge is to be substantially increased to better reflect actual network (i.e. green) costs.

  16. johnbillscott permalink
    March 6, 2019 12:52 pm

    What seems to be missing is population growth this must be a significant factor, but, seems to be ignored

  17. Stephen Lord permalink
    March 7, 2019 2:34 am

    Most ofthe decline was a drop in manufacturing as industries went offshore to China were they primarily use coal so not worldwide emissions went up. The Cinese know this is economic suicide by the Europeans and are happy to play along.

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