Carbon Brief: UK's emissions could have doubled since 1990 without renewable energy

The UK's total carbon footprint has decreased by 38% since 1990 - but could have doubled if the renewable energy revolution had failed to gain traction, new analysis from Carbon Brief has concluded.

In 1990, coal accounted for 67% of the UK's energy mix. In 2017, that figure stood at 5%

In 1990, coal accounted for 67% of the UK's energy mix. In 2017, that figure stood at 5%

The organisation’s latest analysis on the UK’s shrinking carbon footprint, published today (4 February), reveals that progress regarding emissions reductions over the past ten years has remained steady, despite a period of decreased investment in low-carbon technologies following the financial crash of 2008.

Overall, it claims, the UK has reduced its total carbon footprint by 38% since 1990, – a slight increase on the 37% reduction recorded in 2016. According to official Government figures, the UK’s total carbon footprint stood at 600m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) in 1990 and 367MtCO2 in 2017.

The shift away from coal power generation has been the key driver of this decarbonisation, Carbon Brief claims, accounting for 36% of the reduction. Within the past 27 years, coal has gone from accounting for 67% of the UK’s energy mix to just 5%, the analysis states, as more renewable and nuclear arrays have come online.

The second-biggest contributor to reductions was found to be lower energy use among the industrial and residential sectors, as businesses and individuals turned to energy-efficiency measures like LED lighting and electric heating to reduce their bills. This shift was responsible for almost one-third (31%) of the UK’s progress, Carbon Brief claims, with savings from industry being greater than those from homes.

Carbon Brief claims that without these sizeable shifts towards renewable power generation and energy-efficiency, the UK’s overall carbon emissions could have been twice as high today as they were in 1990. In this scenario, the proportion of emissions related to electricity generation would also have been four times that of present levels.

“Without the factors that have driven major shifts in recent years, coal would have remained king, with gas, wind, bio-energy and solar all remaining negligible,” the report states

“Nuclear generation would have remained largely the same, with somewhat higher output in recent years.”

The publication of the analysis comes shortly after EnAppSys released a new outlook report predicting that renewables will overtake fossil fuels in 2020 to become the "dominant" source of power in Great Britain. This followed a reveal last November that the installed capacity of renewables had already surpassed that of fossil fuels.

Carbon Brief is predicting that the UK Government’s plans to remove coal from the electricity mix by 2025 is likely to spur further reductions in this area, but has warned that “additional and rapid” progress will be needed in the transport and farming sectors, if the UK is to meet the aims of its Fifth Carbon Budget. These forecasts come at a time when transport is the most carbon-intense sector in the UK and the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is lobbying for a “fundamental reform” of the farming industry’s approach to sustainability.

Embodied carbon

Carbon Brief’s analysis additionally highlights the fact that products imported to the UK over the past decade have, largely, had a lower carbon footprint than their predecessors.

It states that the CO2 generated when making and transporting goods which are imported into the UK had largely canceled out the nation’s decarbonisation progress before 2007, largely due to sourcing products from coal-intensive nations such as China.

This trend began to turn in late 2007 to early 2008, according to Carbon Brief, with emissions embodied in imported goods making up just a small portion of the amount of carbon negated in the energy and transport sectors. Over the past decade, both domestic and consumption emissions have fallen by similar amounts, the analysis notes.

Sarah George


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