Coal phase-out sees UK emissions tumble by 4%

A fall in coal use, and subsequent rise in renewables and nuclear electricity sources, has been listed as a prime driver in the UK registering a 4% decline in carbon emissions in 2015, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have revealed.

Released on Tuesday (7 February), the ONS figures revealed that “basket emissions” – the seven greenhouse gases listed under the Kyoto Protocol – had fallen by 3.8% in 2015 to 495.7m tonnes. When solely examining carbon emissions, which account for 81% of total UK gas emissions, figures highlight a 4.1% decrease.

The latest figures provide a final update to provisional estimates published in March 2016, highlighting slight changes in the readings.

ONS named a “large decrease in the use of coal for electricity generation” as the main reason for the decline. The UK energy supply sector recorded a more-than 12% decrease in “basket emissions” in 2015, thanks to the ongoing shift in generational sources.

In total, energy sector emissions have tumbled by almost 50% since 1990, while emissions from the waste sector have fallen by 73% in that timeframe. For 2015, waste management emissions recorded a 7% decrease due to less resources being sent to landfill.

According to the analysis, the current downward trend in emissions has placed the UK on track to surpass its second carbon budget, which requires a 29% reduction in emissions below the 1990 baseline by the end of 2017. For 2015, UK emissions were 38% below the baseline putting it on a trajectory to meet the third carbon budget of a 35% reduction, providing there are no significant increases in emissions before 2020.

Future trajectory

Heavy business sectors, such as steelworks and construction, reduced emissions by 2.6% in 2015, although this was attributed to the closure of a large steelworks facility. However, if the UK is to hit longer-term targets, including the recently approved fifth carbon budget, the Government may have to target struggling sectors.

The fifth carbon budget seeks to limit the annual emissions to 57% below 1990 levels by the year 2032. If the UK is to reach this target, improvements need to be made to agriculture, land use change and transport sectors. Agriculture emissions flatlined again in 2015, and transport emissions climbed by 2%.

ONS figures have previously revealed that transport is the only sector in the UK that has seen increased emissions since 1970. For 2015, both land use charge and the residential sector increased by 1% and 4% respectively. ONS attributes the increase in household emissions to colder weather.

Matt Mace

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