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E08DRF Royal Exchange, London, England, UK. circa 1890's. Image shot 1890. Exact date unknown.
Royal Exchange, London, UK, circa 1890. Credit: GL Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.
7 March 2018 0:01

Analysis: UK carbon emissions in 2017 fell to levels last seen in 1890

Zeke Hausfather


Zeke Hausfather

07.03.2018 | 12:01am
UK emissionsAnalysis: UK carbon emissions in 2017 fell to levels last seen in 1890

Carbon Brief analysis shows the UK’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuels fell by 2.6% in 2017, driven by a 19% decline in coal use.

This follows on the heels of a larger 5.8% drop in CO2 in 2016, which saw a record 52% drop in coal use. The UK’s total CO2 emissions are currently 38% below 1990 levels and are now as low as emissions were back in 1890 – the year the Forth Bridge opened in Scotland and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was published.

These findings are based on Carbon Brief analysis of newly released Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) energy use figures. The department will publish its own CO2 estimates in late March.

Sources of reductions

UK CO2 emissions have been decreasing steadily every year since 2012, with particularly large drops in 2014 and 2016. This decline continued in 2017, driven by a combination of declining coal use and natural gas use. Oil and petroleum use has increased slightly, though not enough to offset the declines in CO2 associated with other fuels.

The causes of the declines in emissions between each year from 2012 to 2017 are shown in the figure below. The black bars represent estimated change in annual emissions based on fossil fuel consumption, while the red, blue and grey bars show the contribution of oil, natural gas and coal, respectively, to the annual change.

Estimated UK CO2 emissions from fossil fuels (in millions of tonnes) from 2012 to 2017. Note that the y-axis begins at 350 MtCO2 rather than zero to better highlight changes over the period shown. These annual CO2 values may differ slightly from official inventories due to methodology used; see end of article for details. Data via BEIS and Carbon Brief’s analysis; chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts

While the fall in coal use in 2017 was much smaller than that in 2016, it is clear that the large decline in coal use in recent years was not a temporary phenomenon. Coal now accounts for only 5.3% of total primary energy consumed in the UK, down from 22% in 1995. The UK government has pledged to close all coal-fired power stations by 2025.

The slight decrease in natural gas use in 2017 was largely related to a milder winter and does not show up in temperature-adjusted versions of the BEIS data that try to normalise for year-over-year changes in weather condition.

Reductions in coal use has driven most of the carbon reductions in recent years, though reductions in gas use were a larger driver earlier in the decade. The figure below shows how much each fuel has contributed to the overall decline in total CO2 emissions from fossil fuels since 2009.

Percent reduction in estimated UK CO2 emissions from fossil fuels (in million tons) by fuel, relative to 2009. Modest increases in CO2 from coal between 2009 and 2013 are not shown for clarity, as they are overcome by declines by 2014. Data via BEIS and Carbon Brief’s analysis; chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

Coal use in the UK had been mostly steady from the late 1990s until 2014 (see later coal chart), with declines in gas and oil use driving most emissions reductions. However, coal use fell precipitously between 2014 and 2017, declining by nearly 75% compared to 2013 values. Coal’s fall in recent years is responsible for the bulk of CO2 reductions in the UK over the past decade.

Based on the preliminary BEIS numbers, Carbon Brief estimates that oil and petroleum use accounted for approximately 49% of total UK CO2 emissions from fossil fuels in 2017, up from 37% in 2010. The increased fraction of emissions coming from oil is due to declines in emissions from coal, as total emissions from oil has actually slightly declined, from 196MtCO2 to 191MtCO2 between 2010 and 2017.

The transportation sector consumed approximately 77% of all oil in 2015, the latest year where detailed breakdowns of consumption by sector are available. This means that approximately 38% of total UK CO2 emissions from fossil fuels can be attributed to oil consumed in the transportation sector in 2017, up from 36% in 2016. (This number may differ slightly from the official BEIS estimate once that is released, as Carbon Brief’s number only includes CO2 emissions from fossil fuels rather than from all sources.)

Coal continues long slide downward

The UK’s coal consumption has fallen every year since 2012. It is now well below any level of use in the country’s recent history. The figure below shows UK coal consumption between 1858 and 2017.

Annual UK coal consumption (in million tonnes coal) between 1858 and 2017. Data via BEIS and Carbon Brief’s analysis; chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

Back in 1858, the UK’s coal use was around 65m tonnes. It grew to a peak of 221m tonnes in 1956, then started a long decline. In 2017, coal use is estimated to be a mere 15m tonnes, 78% below its 1858 value and a massive 93% below its peak in 1956.

CO2 emissions down to below 1890 levels

With coal quickly disappearing in the UK and other fossil fuel use mostly flat, emissions have continued their steady decline. Overall, CO2 emissions have declined faster in the UK since the early 1990s than in almost any other large economy. Outside the miner strikes in 1893 and 1921 and the 1926 general strike, emissions are now as low as they were back in the year 1890, as shown in the figure below.

Annual UK carbon emissions from all sources between 1858 and 2017. 1858-2016 values via BEIS and WRI-CAIT historial emissions data; 2017 value estimated based on the reduction in fossil fuel CO2 from 2016 to 2017, holding everything else constant. Note that these values are smaller than fossil fuel CO2 alone due to land-use changes resulting in a net reduction of CO2 in recent decades in the UK. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

While these rapid declines are impressive, there is still a long way to go to meet the national target of 80% reductions below 1990 levels by 2050. CO2 emissions currently are around 38% below 1990 levels, leaving additional reductions of 250 Mt CO2 – around 68% of today’s emissions – to achieve over the next three decades.

If non-CO2 greenhouse gases are taken into account, emissions have fallen by around 42% since 1990. This assumes that non-CO2 greenhouse gases remained at 2016 levels for 2017, as 2017’s non-CO2 emissions data is not yet available.

Carbon Brief calculations

UK CO2 emissions for fossil fuels were estimated by multiplying the reported consumption of each fuel by its respective emission factor, accounting when possible for different uses of a particular fuel across industries or applications. Carbon Brief’s estimates of UK CO2 emissions in 2017 are based on analysis of provisional UK energy use data published by BEIS. The same approach has been generally accurate in estimated year-to-year changes in emissions over the past seven years (see table, below). Note that both the Carbon Brief and reported values shown exclude emissions from land-use changes.

Carbon Brief analysis: Estimated year-over-year change in UK CO2 emissions (excluding land use) versus reported results
YearReportedCarbon BriefDifference
Source: Carbon Brief analysis and CO2 emissions data through 2016 (excluding land use change) from BEIS. Note that these may differ slightly from the numbers in Carbon Brief’s prior article due to the choice to directly estimate emissions based on fossil fuel consumption rather than scaling the results to exactly match full CO2 inventories (which in prior years also included land use changes).

The resulting estimate of carbon emissions from fossil fuels using this approach may differ slightly from official greenhouse gas inventories due to different sectors included and assumed emission factors. However, the results are generally within 1% to 3% of total reported non-land-use CO2 emissions for prior years.

Update: Note that this analysis using the latest government data is unable to calculate the UK’s “imported” emissions. Carbon Brief covered this topic last year and found: “Even though domestic emissions have fallen 27% in the UK between 1990 and 2014, once CO2 imports from trade are considered this drops to only an 11% reduction.”

Update 19/3/2018: Note that this article focuses on CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and uses an approach similar to that employed by BEIS in calculating official UK CO2 emissions. As such, it ignores the emissions associated with biomass energy, which are disputed. Woody biomass has replaced roughly a sixth of the coal that has been eliminated in the UK since 2012.

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