FEB 07, 2019 5:55 PM PST

The secret to the UK's decline in greenhouse gas emissions

New analysis from Carbon Brief highlights the fall in the UK’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the last three decades. Since 1990, UK GHG emissions have fallen 38%, winning the title for the fastest decline in any developed country - but is it enough to keep the UK on track to meet its goal of cutting carbon emissions 80% by 2050?

Before answering that question, let’s look at some numbers. Since 1990, UK emissions fell from an annual 600m tons of CO2 to 367m tons in 2017. That’s a significant reduction and it consisted of a lot of factors coming together. For example, in 2017 the biggest influence on declining emissions came as a result of cleaner electricity from gas and renewables instead of coal, accounting for 36% of the emissions reduction. That same year, fuel consumption by business and industry made up roughly 31% of the emissions reduction, while reduced electricity use – accounted for 18% of the fall.

One way to think about the UK’s success with cutting greenhouse gases is to imagine a scenario in which emissions had not fallen, and had instead continued on, “business-as-usual”.

As Carbon Brief poignantly explains: “If underlying factors driving emissions had not changed, Carbon Brief’s analysis shows that a growing population and a constant electricity generation mix would have led to emissions increasing by around 25% compared to 1990 levels. Instead, emissions actually fell by 38%. Overall, emissions in 2017 were 51% lower than they would have been without these changes.”

So the idea that UK emissions would have been twice as big now if underlying factors, in fact, hadn’t changed and emissions from electricity would’ve been almost four times greater, makes it seem like the UK is heading in the right direction, doesn’t it?

The UK aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. Photo: Pixabay

But let’s take a closer look. While the UK has closed many coal-fired powerplants and coal use for electricity fell 27% to a record low, experts say that incorporating the UK’s emissions plan (remember: cut 80% by 2050) into industry sectors such as transportation, housing and. agriculture is ambitious.

Indeed, critics have voiced concerns that UK policies are not sufficient and that money is being funneled into investments that do not focus on sustainability. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas commented that she was surprised by Carbon Brief’s analysis: "With this Government's huge subsidies for fossil fuels, relentless building of new roads and runways, slashing of support for clean energy and sordid love affair with the car industry, it's incredible that overall emissions fell at all."

Sources: BBC News, Carbon Brief, Environmental Journal

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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