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Queen Victoria in Horse-Drawn Carriage
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
31 March 2016 15:39

UK emissions lowest since the 1920s as renewables overtake coal

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

31.03.2016 | 3:39pm
UK emissionsUK emissions lowest since the 1920s as renewables overtake coal

UK CO2 emissions fell to their lowest level since the 1920s last year as renewables generated more electricity than coal for the first time ever, provisional statistics from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) show.

The figures, showing a 4.1% reduction in CO2 emissions between 2014 and 2015, confirm Carbon Brief analysis published last month, which estimated a 4.3% fall. DECC also reports a 3.3% reduction in UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.

Carbon Brief has extracted the key figures from the latest DECC data.

Victorian emissions

Last year’s drop in emissions takes UK CO2 output to 405 million tonnes (Mt), the lowest level since the economic seizures caused by the 1920s general strikes. The last time UK CO2 emissions were consistently as low as in 2015, Queen Victoria sat on the throne.

UK CO2 emissions 1850-2015

UK CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2015

UK CO2 emissions (millions of tonnes) between 1850 and 2015. Source: DECC and the World Resources Institute CAIT data explorer. Chart by Carbon Brief. The CAIT data has been adjusted because it excludes land use emissions.

UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 were down 3.3%, to 497MtCO2 equivalent. This is the lowest level in at least 65 years; longer records are not available. It leaves UK emissions 38% below 1990 levels.

The third carbon budget for 2018-2022 calls for a 35% reduction. This comparison is only indicative however. Carbon budget accounting uses a complicated approach that makes direct comparisons impossible.

Coal collapse

Last year’s reduction in emissions was almost entirely down to a continuing collapse in coal burning, particularly in the electricity sector. Coal-fired power generation in 2015 fell to its lowest level since the 1950s, down 24% since 2014 and 47% since 2012. EnAppSys, an energy service provider, says coal generation is the lowest since 1951.

UK electricity generation by source, 1960-2015

UK electricity generation by source, 1960-2015

UK electricity generation by source, 1960-2015, terawatt hours. Source: DECC energy trends table 5.1 and historical electricity data. Chart by Carbon Brief.

Overall, UK coal consumption is at its lowest level in more than 150 years as railways, factories, homes and gasworks no longer use it. More recent factors weighing on demand include half of Drax, the UK’s largest power station, being converted to burn wood pellets instead of coal.

Changes in the relative wholesale price of coal versus gas, an increase in the UK’s carbon tax last April, the closure of the SSI steelworks in Redcar, the rise of renewables and a rebound in nuclear output all contributed to the reduction in coal use in 2015.

Several coal plants have closed this year, suggesting the fall in coal use will continue in 2016.

Record renewables

The fall in coal generation combined with a large increase in renewable electricity output means, for the first time ever, green energy is now the UK’s second-largest power source. Renewables supplied 25% of the electricity generated in the UK last year, a record high share.

Renewables’ share of generation was up from 19% in 2014, an increase of nearly a third. Within that, the largest increases were for solar, up 87%, and biomass, up 44%. In total, renewable output has more than tripled since 2010.

UK renewable electricity generation by source, 2009-2015

UK renewable electricity generation by source, 2009-2015

UK renewable electricity generation by source, 2009-2015, terawatt hours. “Other” includes landfill gas, energy from waste, anaerobic digestion, sludge digestion and biomass co-firing. The latter is no longer significant. Source: DECC energy trends section six. Chart by Carbon Brief.

Combined with nuclear, the latest DECC figures show that low-carbon supplies accounted for 46% of UK generation in 2015, also a record high.

Falling bills

The record high for renewables and collapsing coal use last year was accompanied by the first reduction in household energy bills since 2010.

Domestic energy bills chart

Source: DECC special feature on domestic energy bills.

The reduction in bills reflects a combination of a longer-term trend towards lower household energy demand and the shorter-term impact of falling energy prices, following the collapse in oil prices.

Cheap oil

The large drop in coal-related CO2 masked an increase in emissions from transport, up 1.4% last year as cheap oil led to more driving. In fact, transport emissions in 2015 were just 1% below 1990 levels.

UK transport CO2 emissions 1990-2015

UK transport CO2 emissions 1990-2015

UK transport CO2 emissions 1990-2015, millions of tonnes. Source: DECC. Chart by Carbon Brief.

Transport accounted for 29% of UK CO2 emissions in 2015, the second-largest source after electricity generation. The lack of progress in reducing transport emissions means the sector is claiming an ever-increasing share of the UK total.

One reason is the growing gap between car CO2 standards and emissions in the real world. This has prompted speculation as to whether Volkswagen-style “defeat devices” have been used more widely in the car industry.

Residential emissions — mainly from home heating — also increased last year. This was largely because it was slightly cooler than 2014, which was the UK’s hottest year on record.

The UK will need to cut emissions across the whole economy if it is to meet its longer-term carbon targets, according to the Committee on Climate Change.

Main image: Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1898 at the age of 79.
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  • UK emissions lowest since the 1920s as renewables overtake coal
  • Nick Cowern

    This all sounds very positive but DECC is spinning the information. Most of what they say is low carbon energy is actually produced by burning gas, which is far from low carbon when its full greenhouse gas emissions (methane as well as CO2) are acounted for.

    • Tebot Siocled

      DECC is most certainly a ‘spinner’, but the relentless march of renewables is empirically demonstrable, and the trend is towards a renewable and storage-based electricity system. More difficult to tackle will be heat and transport.

  • Andrew Warren

    Yet again Carbon Brief omits to consider fully one of the most important factors leading to lower emissions : improved energy efficiency. We are using far less energy than we were 50 years ago, despite being three times wealthier. In the past decade alone, overall consumption is down 18%.

    Sometimes I despair of you.

    • Simon Evans

      Andrew, we regularly highlight the UK’s falling energy use. See for example this Carbon Brief article from last year:

      For decades if not centuries, a growing economy has usually been accompanied by rising energy use. Recessions have been the only sure-fire way to dampen rising demand. Since 2005, however, the UK has been busy breaking that link.

      In 2014 the downward trend accelerated, with a 6.6% reduction in energy use, even as the economy grew by a relatively rapid 2.8%. That left energy use last year down 18% since a 2005 peak and at the lowest level for at least half a century.

  • GeoffBeacon


    Our production based carbon emissions have fell substantially since 1990 but the emissions from our consumption have gone up. Steel production is a good example.

    For the purposes of the UK Climate Change Act (2008), UK greenhouse gas emissions are measured on a production basis: they are measured as the emissions made within the UK. Closing steel production in the UK cuts the UK’s production carbon emissions. However, the emissions caused by UK consumption do not fall because UK steel is replaced by imported imported steel:

    Use more Chinese steel and our official emissions decrease. Our real emissions do not.

    (See “Climate and carbon emissions: It’s worse than you think”, ( )

    • Simon Evans

      It’s not as bad as you make out. See this Carbon Brief article.

      The BBC says UK emissions are rising, not falling, once pollution in imported goods from the likes of China are included. In fact, UK emissions including imports are below 1990 levels, while a larger share of the UK’s imported emissions come from Europe than from China.

      • ChrisBroome

        The CCC has estimated the UK’s carbon footprint. In a report from April 2013, the CCC stated “Our analysis suggests that the UK’s carbon footprint has increased by around 10% since 1993, as growth in imported emissions more than offset the 19% reduction in production emissions.” See .

        This appears to support Geoff Beacon’s first point and contradict the Leeds researchers who found the UK carbon footprint was down by 7% between 1990 and 2012. However, there have been falls in UK production [ie conventionally measured] emissions since 2013. These may have done enough to mean the UK carbon footprint is also marginally down by now, even under the CCC methodology. It would be interesting to have up-to-date figures from them.

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