Analysis: UK carbon emissions fell 9% in 2014

  • 04 Mar 2015, 00:01
  • Simon Evans

Update 26/3: Official figures have confirmed the analysis below. See our story here.

UK carbon dioxide emissions fell by more than nine per cent in 2014 year-on-year, according to Carbon Brief analysis of newly released government energy data.

A 20 per cent reduction in coal use and record warm temperatures both contributed to the decline in emissions. Continued falls in energy use were also a factor.

The estimated 9.2 per cent fall in UK carbon emissions is the largest year-on-year reduction since 1880, for a year with a growing economy. There were larger carbon reductions in 1893, 1921, 1926 and 2009, when GDP was falling.

The Carbon Brief emissions estimate is based on analysis of preliminary energy use data for 2014, published on 26 February by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Estimates for previous years using the same method are accurate to within half a percentage point, as the table below shows.

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 At 17.14.01

Source: Carbon Brief analysis of DECC energy and emissions data.

A 9.2 per cent reduction would leave UK emissions 28 per cent below 1990 levels, at 429 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. The UK is aiming to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and cut them by 80 per cent by 2050, both against 1990 levels.

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How the EU's evolving Energy Union reveals underlying politics

  • 25 Feb 2015, 16:15
  • Simon Evans

EU flags | Shutterstock

Europe's energy system needs to be fundamentally transformed, shifting away from reliance on fossil fuels, according to the European Commission's proposals for an energy union.

A framework strategy for the energy union, published today, explains how the commission plans to achieve this transformation. The strategy attempts to create a coherent vision by synthesising all existing EU policies on climate and energy with a number of new initiatives.

Reactions so far suggest this synthesis has only been partially successful. Legal NGO ClientEarth says the strategy lacks clear rules on how EU targets will be met. Thinktank E3G says the strategy is "good on vision, but deeply confused on delivery priorities". NGO Greenpeace says the plan is "contradictory" and lacks coherence, while WWF says it has "blind spots".

Carbon Brief explains where the idea of an energy union came from and shows how the strategy text has evolved through several drafts, revealing evidence of the differing political priorities that have challenged creation of a clear and coherent strategy.

It's important to note that the commission proposal will be discussed by member state governments at meetings in March, April and June. They could propose further changes.

Moving on from Tusk's energy security union

The idea of an energy union was first proposed by European Council president and former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk in an April 2014 article for the Financial Times. Tusk's proposal emphasised energy security above all.

It called for region-wide purchasing of gas, linking and strengthening the EU's electricity transmission systems, and making "full use" of EU fossil fuel reserves, including coal and shale gas.

Earlier this month, Carbon Brief produced a detailed energy union briefing based on a leaked draft strategy dated 30 January. The briefing explained how Tusk's proposal had been transformed into a more holistic strategy with five "dimensions": integrated energy markets, a new deal for energy consumers, energy efficiency, decarbonising the economy and research.

Since then, a second draft was widely leaked, including to Carbon Brief. This draft shifted emphasis in a number of key areas while the final version moves things on again. So, how has the energy union evolved in recent weeks?

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MEPs vote for early EU carbon market fix

  • 24 Feb 2015, 16:15
  • Simon Evans

Trading chart | Shutterstock

An early and ambitious fix to the European Union's emissions trading scheme (ETS) has been backed by the European Parliament's environment committee in a vote today.

The ETS is central to the EU's efforts to tackle climate change, but has been suffering from  chronically low prices that are insufficient to drive low-carbon investments.

To fix the market, the European Commission had proposed reforms starting in 2021, designed to reduce a surplus of two billion carbon credits on the market which have caused low prices.

Today's parliamentary vote backs earlier implementation of the reforms, starting in 2018, and contains additional measures to tackle surplus allowances.

Analysts say the reforms could see EU carbon prices more than double by 2020, to between €17 and €35 per tonne. Member states must still back any reforms to the ETS, however.

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Labour leader Ed Miliband's plan for the Paris climate deal

  • 23 Feb 2015, 15:20
  • Simon Evans

Prospective UK prime minister Ed Miliband has set out his vision for a global climate deal, in an article for the Observer newspaper.

The Labour leader's article says tackling climate change would be one of his highest priorities as prime minister, calling it an "economic necessity" and the "single most important thing we can do for our children and our grandchildren". He says last year's winter floods showed climate change is a security threat to the UK, as well as globally.

Carbon Brief summarises reactions to the piece and looks more closely at Miliband's vision for the Paris climate deal, due to be agreed at the end of this year.

Political reactions

The piece has attracted wide press coverage in the UK because of Miliband's decision to appoint former deputy prime minister John Prescott as a senior climate adviser.

Lord Prescott has a long track record in the international climate arena, as does Miliband, who was energy and climate change secretary when the UK Climate Change Act was passed in 2008. Prescott was the lead EU climate negotiator when the Kyoto Protocol was agreed in 1997.

Miliband says of Prescott: "There is no one better than John at bashing heads together to get a deal." In a column in the Sunday Mirror, Prescott says any head-bashing will be of the intellectual variety and says his brief is to "raise ambition on this crucial issue".

The Guardian says the appointment will give Prescott a "frontline general election role", with the BBC taking the same line. The Daily Mail says the move "will be seen as an attempt to turn the clock back to when Labour used to win elections".

In an article for the Express, Leo McKinstry calls Prescott a "charmless old bruiser" and says Prescott's "two Jags" nickname means he has "zero credibility in peddling the green agenda". The Telegraph calls Prescott "the bulldog who saved Labour", but says the appointment may irk Labour's shadow energy and climate change secretary Caroline Flint.

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How significant is the UK party leaders' joint climate pledge?

  • 16 Feb 2015, 15:10
  • Simon Evans

Over the weekend, the UK's three main political leaders pledged to tackle climate change after the next election, whatever the outcome on 5 May.

The Conservative's David Cameron, Labour's Ed Miliband and the Liberal Democrat's Nick Clegg agreed to work towards a legally-binding global climate deal, to agree new UK emissions-cutting goals and to phase out unabated coal-fired power stations.

Carbon Brief assesses the significance of the unusual joint pre-election pledge.

Cross-party pledge

There are three parts to the party leaders' pledge, published on Saturday after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations brokered by NGOs, including Green Alliance, Christian Aid and the Women's Institute.

The leaders agree:

  • To seek a fair, strong, legally binding, global climate deal which limits temperature rises to below two degrees.

  • To work together, across party lines, to agree carbon budgets, in accordance with the Climate Change Act.

  • To accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy efficient low-carbon economy and to end the use of unabated coal for power generation.

The first part of the pledge, on a legally-binding climate deal consistent with limiting warming to two degrees, is in line with official EU policy. So the UK government already supported this aim.

The wording does not specifically refer to the UN climate talks where leaders are supposed to agree a deal in Paris this December. This omission may be to allow for the chance that the Paris talks agree a deal which is not legally binding, or which falls short on the goal of limiting warming to no more than two degrees.

The second part, on UK carbon budgets, is also a restatement of current policy. The Climate Change Act is legally binding and says that carbon budgets must be agreed according to a fixed timetable and the advice of the Committee on Climate Change.

The coal phase out pledge is a new policy for Labour and the Conservatives. However, it reflects current government expectations that unabated coal use for energy would have in any case ceased by around 2030. Unabated coal would be off the electricity grid by 2027 under central projections from the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

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Briefing: The 15 options for net-zero emissions in the Paris climate text

  • 13 Feb 2015, 15:55
  • Simon Evans

Credit: Leila Mead/IISD

Many of the world's nations want this year's Paris climate talks to aim for net-zero emissions, so that the world becomes climate neutral later this century.

Achieving near-zero emissions in the second half of this century is central to the Paris deal, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres said today at the close of UN climate talks in Geneva.

A long-term net-zero goal would provide a new focus for international action, which has so far aimed to limit warming to no more than two degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. Emissions can be measured and controlled directly, whereas the link between temperatures and dangerous warming is complex.

Yet the concept of a net-zero emissions goal is by no means a done deal. It has been expressed in many ways, including 15 different versions in the latest draft of the Paris climate text, published late last night.

Carbon Brief explains what net-zero means, how it could work and what a target might look like.

Next steps

The next step will be for negotiators to  attempt to "streamline" the current 84-page text, including its 15 net-zero options, when they meet again in June. The 194 parties to the UNFCCC could amend, add to or completely discard the concept of net zero at this stage.

So while net zero could provide a much-needed clear and easy-to-measure framework for international climate action, it's far too early to be sure it will be part of any Paris climate deal.

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Seven charts showing how the EU's energy use is being transformed

  • 10 Feb 2015, 08:00
  • Simon Evans

Polish coal plant | Shutterstock

EU energy use has fallen again, according to the latest official data published. Energy use is now nearly 10 per cent below a 2006 peak and has returned to levels last seen a quarter century ago in the early 1990s.

The sources of the EU's energy have changed dramatically too, the data shows, with coal and oil use now below 1990 levels. Meanwhile, energy from renewables has surged, with output nearly tripling between 1990 and 2013.

EU energy use is in the midst of a massive transformation as the region works to tackle climate change while replacing ageing energy infrastructure and attempting to minimise costs. Here are seven charts that show what's going on.

Falling EU energy use

Energy use in the EU fell to 1,666 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 2013, according to the latest data from Eurostat, the European Commission's statistical body. This is about the same amount of energy as was used back in 1990, a quarter of a century ago. The fall reverses a long-rising trend in energy use, as the chart below shows.

EU energy use. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014; chart by Carbon Brief

Back in 1990, the EU accounted for 21 per cent of global energy use. By 2013, that share had fallen to 13 per cent as EU energy flatlined while the rest of the world surged ahead. The EU's energy use has been eclipsed by China, whose share has climbed from eight per cent to 22 per cent over the same time period.

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National carbon market on the horizon for China

  • 05 Feb 2015, 13:05
  • Mat Hope

Beijing smog | Shutterstock

China has been experimenting with provincial carbon-market schemes over the past four years. Government officials are now suitably convinced that a national market could begin in mid-2016,  Reuters reports.

But progress will likely be slow as China seeks to avoid the problems  currently hobbling the EU's scheme. Carbon Brief looks at how China's pilot schemes are progressing, and what the next steps are to creating the world's largest carbon market.

Current schemes

China has pledged to ensure its emissions peak in 2030 as part of  an historic deal with the US, signed in November last year. It will implement a range of regulations and schemes to make that happen, including a national carbon market.

In preparation, China's government established seven pilot programmes in 2011 to see if carbon markets could work in a Chinese context. The government plans to expand and link these markets to form large regional schemes, before converting those into a  national market in 2016.  

China has been relatively slow to jump on the carbon-market bandwagon. The EU's emissions trading scheme (ETS) - currently, the world's largest - was set up in 2005. There are now 46 carbon  markets operating worldwide.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.51.16.pngSource: Data from China Carbon. Graph by Carbon Brief.

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Shale gas remains UK’s most divisive energy source, poll shows

  • 03 Feb 2015, 11:25
  • Mat Hope

The public remains divided on whether the UK should exploit its shale gas resources, new government polling shows.

The statistics come a week after Lancashire council  delayed a decision on whether to permit fracking at two sites, due to concerns over noise and traffic.

The shale gas circus has been in town for a couple of years now. In that time, protesters have taken to the streets and gone home again,  companies have fired up their drills and shut them down, and Scotland cautiously welcomed and then  banned the industry.

It seems such drama has split the public, with similar numbers of people opposing and supporting fracking. The data shows that, of all the UK's energy options, shale gas remains the most divisive.

Opinion split

The latest round of the Department of Energy and Climate Change's (Decc)  public attitude tracker survey shows 24 per cent of the public support extracting shale gas, while 23 per cent are opposed.

When Decc conducted the poll last September, 26 per cent supported shale gas extraction, with 27 per cent opposing it.

The results are slightly different to a  Sunday Times/YouGov poll conducted a few weeks later, but also released this week. That survey showed 35 per cent of people support fracking, with 41 per cent against it.

Sources:  Decc and  Sunday Times/YouGov. Graph by Carbon Brief.

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Coal carbon capture could increase future climate risks, study finds

  • 03 Feb 2015, 07:00
  • Simon Evans

Coal-fired power stations should be replaced by low-carbon energy sources rather than retrofitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS), according to new research from the University of Oxford.

The study dents the idea that coal can be compatible with climate action as long as it uses CCS. It says finite CCS capacity should be held in reserve in case negative emissions technologies are needed to return dangerous greenhouse gas concentrations to a safe level after 2050.

The new report on Stranded Carbon Assets and Negative Emissions Technologies is published today by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

Stranded assets

The idea that companies could be sitting on fossil fuel assets they can't burn if the world tackles climate change has now hit the mainstream. One study found nearly 90 per cent of the world's coal reserves are unburnable if we're to avoid dangerous warming.

A counter-argument is that firms could carry on burning coal while capturing the emissions through CCS. Smith School analysis suggests this has the potential to capture 125 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in total by 2050, against today's annual coal emissions of around 12 gigatonnes.

So coal plants could have another 10 years of business-as-usual operation without eating into carbon budgets, if they used all available CCS capacity to capture their emissions.

Negative emissions technologies that remove carbon from the atmosphere could extend the operating life of coal plants even further, again assuming only coal emissions are offset.

The Smith School report looks at what types of negative emissions technologies are available and how much breathing space they might inject into the carbon budget for two degrees.

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