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Climate crisis: UK ‘halfway to net zero’ due to dip in emissions caused by coronavirus pandemic, analysis reveals

Shift away from coal and cleaner industrial economy have driven gains, but much greater change is needed, research suggests

Harry Cockburn
Thursday 18 March 2021 13:57 GMT
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A motorway in England. With the decline of coal, surface transport is now the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions
A motorway in England. With the decline of coal, surface transport is now the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (Leonid Andronov/Getty)

A dip in emissions due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic means the UK is temporarily halfway towards reducing its output of greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by 2050, new analysis has found.

Greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 were 51 per cent below 1990 levels, following a record 11 per cent fall in emissions since 2019, according to research by climate science website Carbon Brief.

But emissions are likely to rise again as the UK economy reopens following the current lockdown.

To quantify total greenhouse gas emissions - which are made up by a variety of gases which cause the greenhouse effect and include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone - the researchers compared metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, or MTCO2e.

The unit “CO2e” represents an amount of a greenhouse gas whose atmospheric impact has been standardised to that of one unit mass of carbon dioxide (CO2), based on the global warming potential of the gas.

In 1990 the UK emitted 794 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

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Under the UK’s legally binding target to reach net-zero by 2050, the country must cut its emissions by at least 100 per cent of the pollution it put into the atmosphere in 1990.

So with the reductions forced by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, after 30 years the UK is halfway to its goal and has another 30 years to reach it.

One of the key ways the UK has cut its emissions is through a rapid move away from coal power in favour of greater levels of renewable power sources.

In 1990 coal was still used to provide two-thirds of electricity, and oil power still made up 10 per cent of generation making the power sector the largest contributor to the nation’s emissions.

This was ahead of the “dash for gas” - a shift that saw gas become a major force in electricity generation.

In 1990, renewable sources of energy made up just 2 per cent of the mix, almost exclusively from hydropower.

(Carbon Brief)

Alongside the abandonment of coal as a power source, the industrial economic landscape has changed to become much less carbon-intensive over the last three decades.

But despite these long term reductions, the big fall in emissions last year were “largely one-off and unique to the coronavirus pandemic, with lockdowns persisting through much of the year in the UK”, the analysis found.

The UK now faces a challenge in reaching net zero over the next 30 years. Slow progress has been made in reforming home and office heating systems, which largely run on gas and contribute a fifth of the country’s emissions.

And “almost no progress” has been made in transport, which by 2019 was responsible for over a quarter of the country’s emissions and remains the single largest contributor.

Dr Simon Evans, the deputy editor at Carbon Brief, told The Independent: “Getting off coal power has happened almost invisibly. But the next phase of net-zero will be much more personal. It’s about the oil in peoples’ cars, the gas heating their homes, the food they eat and the landscapes they live in.

“It’s an opportunity to create new green jobs and cleaner places to live and work, but there’s some tricky politics too.”

The analysis notes that the progress would not have been as fast if international aviation and shipping emissions were included in the total - though changes to how emissions are measured are on the horizon. However, the updated emissions measurements still won’t include UK consumption of goods produced abroad.

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