We already know that coal power overtook gas last year to become the biggest single source of UK electricity in 2012. Now we know what the consequences were: official figures out today show the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.5 per cent in 2012, reversing a longer downward trend.
(All graphs taken from DECC’s statistical release.)
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)’s preliminary assessment suggests the 3.5 per cent rise is due “primarily” to a switch from gas to coal for power generation.
Coal produced 42.8 per cent of the UK’s electricity in 2012 – a startling rise since 2011, when coal provided 30 per cent.
In 2011, gas power produced 40 per cent of UK electricity – so in effect, gas and coal swapped places in the space of a year. Generating electricity using gas produces about half the carbon emissions of using coal.
Emissions of carbon dioxide – the primary gas causing climate change – rose from the power sector rose around 5.5% between 2011 and 2012, the figures show. Emissions from transport fell by 0.8 per cent, while residential carbon dioxide emissions rose by 12 per cent. Overall, carbon dioxide emissions specifically rose by around 4.4 per cent between 2011 and 2012.
Here are the main points from DECC’s summary:
In 2012, UK emissions of the basket of six greenhouse gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol were provisionally estimated to be 571.6 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent. This was 3.5 per cent higher than the 2011 figure of 552.6 million tonnes.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas, accounting for about 83 per cent of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2011, the latest year for which final results are available. In 2012, UK net emissions of carbon dioxide were provisionally estimated to be 479.1 million tonnes (Mt). This was 4.5 per cent higher than the 2011 figure of 458.6 Mt.
Between 2011 and 2012, there were increases in CO2 emissions from most of the main sectors. The provisional estimates show increases in emissions of 5.5 per cent (9.9 Mt) from the energy supply sector, 11.8 per cent (7.8 Mt) from the residential sector, and 4.8 per cent (3.6 Mt) from the business sector. Emissions from the transport sector were down by 1.2 per cent (1.4 Mt) from 2011. All these sectoral breakdowns are based on the source of the emissions, as opposed to where the enduser activity occurred.
Emissions related to electricity generation are therefore attributed to power stations, the source of these emissions, rather than homes and businesses where electricity is used.
The increase in CO2 emissions between 2011 and 2012 resulted primarily from lower use of gas and greater use of coal for electricity generation at power stations, combined with an increase in residential gas use.
The power sector is mostly responsible for the jump in emissions, the department says:
The increase in emissions from this sector since 2010 can almost entirely be attributed to power stations. Although demand for electricity was broadly unchanged, there was a substantial change in the fuel mix used at power stations for electricity generation, with significantly less gas and significantly more coal being used.
Some have disagreed with the way DECC accounts emissions in the past, suggesting that one reason for falling emissions is the ‘offshoring’ of emissions as manufacturing is shifted to other countries. But official statistics have described a decline in emissions over the past decade, with increased use of gas for power instrumental in the trend. DECC says:
“[I]t is likely that the majority of the saving since 1990 will have been due to fuel switching from coal to gas for electricity generation”.
The new figures may prove embarrassing: a return to coal power conflicts somewhat with the government’s promise to be the “ greenest ever“.
A temporary blip?
There are good reasons to believe that this increase in emissions may be temporary.
Coal use is up because coal is cheap. Global prices have dipped as the US turns to indigenous shale gas. But UK coal plants’ days are numbered.
A policy called the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD) has limited the number of hours dirtier coal plants can operate before they must close. With coal so cheap, plants which are set to close after 20,000 hours are currently burning through this allowance faster. This would mean they consume more coal now but close earlier.
Energy secretary Ed Davey has ruled out the idea of building new coal plants. A few days ago, he told Business Green:
“One of the problems at the moment is that because of low gas prices in the US, they’ve been sending their coal to other markets, so coal prices have gone down [and] we’re burning a lot of coal. That is the least green thing imaginable. If anything proves the case for reforming the electricity market, that does.”
Business Green asked:
You mentioned coal plants as the “least green thing”. So why is DECC’s director of energy strategy and futures being quoted saying government is looking at keeping coal plants going to bridge a potential generation capacity gap?
To which Davey replied:
“That’s simply not true. Absolutely not true. That isn’t going to happen.”
The trend in increased coal use may be short-lived – and could be reversed as coal plants close – a large plant in Didcot closed this month. Nonetheless, these statistics are a salient reminder that cutting greenhouse gas emissions and returning to coal power are basically incompatible.
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