Covid-19 sees carbon emissions fall 10% in 2020 as UK nears half-way mark to net-zero

The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic delivered an estimated 10.7% reduction in carbon emissions in 2020, with total greenhouse gas emissions almost 50% lower than they were in 1990, the baseline year for the UK's net-zero target.

The 10.7% reduction is the largest proportional fall in UK greenhouse gas emissions in a single year 

The 10.7% reduction is the largest proportional fall in UK greenhouse gas emissions in a single year 

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has today (25 March) published its provisional figures for UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. The data shows that carbon emissions fell by 10.7% in 2020 compared to 2019 levels, while total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have fallen by almost 9%.

Total GHG emissions were recorded at 48.8% lower than they were in 1990, effectively meaning that the UK is almost halfway to its net-zero target for 2050.

The data shows that emissions reductions were driven by the impacts of the pandemic and subsequent national lockdowns. With road transport and business activity levels falling sharply last year, carbon emissions from transport were 19.6% lower, accounting for over half of the overall fall from 2019. Additionally, emissions from the business sector fell by 8.7%. With more people forced to work from home, carbon emissions from the residential sector increased by 1.8%.

The energy sector continued its strong track record of reducing emissions, delivering an 11.9% reduction in 2020. This was attributed to both the pandemic and the continued reduction in fossil fuel usage.

The Government does admit that the data consists of some “uncertainty”, with finalised data to be published in February 2022. Emissions not related to energy use, for example, are “assumed to remain the same as in 2019” as there is a lack of data for them.

The data also only accounts for emissions on a “territorial” basis and therefore only includes those within the UK’s borders.

Territorial carbon emissions fell by 39Mt in 2020, meaning the 10.7% reduction is the largest proportional fall in UK greenhouse gas emissions in a single year since the start of the data series in 1990, beating the 8.6% reduction recorded during the 2009 recession. However, absolute carbon emissions reductions were higher in 2009, at 56.1 MtCO2e and 2011 at 45.5 MtCO2e.

Energy consumption

The Governments Energy Trends data, also released today, outlines how the pandemic impacted energy consumption.

In 2020, energy requirements for industrial use and services such as shops and offices were down 8% compared to 2019. As a result, energy demand in the domestic sector climbed by 2%.

Transport also delivered its biggest decline in energy consumption, dropping 28% compared to 2019. This was largely driven by a 60% decline in aviation demand. According to the statistics, transport energy consumption in 2020 is comparable to mid-1980 levels, with diesel and petrol demand also down 17% and 21% respectively.

Despite the economic uncertainties caused by Covid-19, renewable generation reached new heights, contributing to a 42.9% share of generation. This outpaces fossil fuel generation, which contributed 38.5% of generation, a new record low and down by half compared to 2010 levels.

While the pandemic also created low outputs for nuclear, the broader low-carbon generation reached a record 59%. Overall, total final energy consumption was 13% lower compared to 2019.

The decline in consumption saw coal demand fall by 7.1 million tonnes, an 11% reduction compared to 2019. Between 10 April and 12 August, coal-fired generation was used on the grid for only one day, while closures to two coal-fired power stations last March means there are just four plants remaining in the UK, all of which will be phased-out by 2025. As such, coal production fell by 35% compared to 2019 and coal imports also fell by 27%.

Production of primary oils exceeded refinery demand for the first time since 2004, while demand for gas fell by 6.2%, the lowest levels since 2015.

Renewables capacity

Last year also saw renewable generation increase by 11% at 13TWh to a record 134.3TWh, outstripping fossil fuels for the first time. Offshore wind accounted for more than 80% of this increase, and overall, renewables accounted for almost 43% of the total generation, which the Government claims is another record.

However, renewable capacity is still slowing. Less than 1GW – or 2% of the UK’s total – was added in 2020, the lowest increase recorded since 2021. In comparison, renewables capacity has an average growth rate of almost 20% during the last 10 years.

Like many countries, the UK is planning to ramp-up production once lockdown measures are eased, meaning that emissions could increase in 2021 as nations race to spur the economy. Indeed, the concept of "retaliatory emissions" has been discussed by nations and businesses in the past, and the accelerated adoption of low-carbon technologies could help mitigate a potential year-on-year rise.

Matt Mace


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