UK sees huge emissions slump but reasons are not all deliberate

New analysis from Carbon Brief has found that the UK’s emissions fell to the lowest levels for 144 years, but the fall may well be more by luck than judgement.

The study said in 1879, the last time UK emissions were this low, Queen Victoria was on the throne, Benjamin Disraeli was prime minister, Mosley Street in Newcastle became the first road in the world with electric lighting and 59 people died in the Tay Bridge disaster in Dundee.

Carbon Brief studied preliminary government energy data, that highlights emissions fell to just 383 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) in 2023. This is the first time they have dropped below 400MtCO2e since Victorian times.

The analysis discovered:

> The UK’s emissions are now 53% below 1990 levels, while GDP has grown by 82%.

> The drop in emissions in 2023 was largely due to an 11% fall in gas demand. This was due to higher electricity imports after the French nuclear fleet recovered, above-average temperatures and weak underlying demand driven by high prices.

> Gas demand would have fallen even faster, but for a 15% fall in UK nuclear output.

> Coal use fell by 23% in 2023 to its lowest level since the 1730s, as all but one of the UK’s remaining coal-fired power stations closed down.

> Transport was the single-largest sector in terms of emissions, followed by buildings industry, agriculture and electricity generation. The electricity sector likely dropped below agriculture for the first time.

“While the 23MtCO2e reduction in 2023 was faster than the 14MtCO2e per year average needed to reach net-zero by 2050, it was mostly unrelated to deliberate climate action,” the report added. “The UK will need to address emissions from buildings, transport, industry and agriculture to reach its 2050 target.”

The UK’s territorial greenhouse gas emissions – those that occur within the country’s borders – have now fallen in 25 of the 34 years since 1990.

The study found consumption-based emissions, including CO2 embedded in imported goods and services, were increasing until 2007, but have since fallen at a similar rate to territorial emissions.

“Apart from brief rebounds after the global financial crisis and the Covid-19 lockdowns, UK emissions have fallen during every year for the past two decades,” it added.

Carbon Brief added: “The biggest contributor to the drop in UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2023 was an 11% reduction in gas demand, which accounted for around two-thirds of last year’s overall decline. This took the UK’s gas demand to its lowest level since the 1980s.

“However, the drop in 2023 was not primarily due to deliberate climate action. The figure below shows the estimated actual drop in emissions in red, followed by contributions from a series of factors that decreased emissions, in blue, and other factors in grey.

“The most significant factor was the UK returning to its long-term position as a net electricity importer in 2023, reducing demand for domestically generated power from gas by more than 20%.”

The analysis explained this followed an anomalous year in 2022, when the UK was a net exporter for the first time ever, as a result of widespread outages in the French nuclear fleet. Lower demand for gas power accounted for more than two-thirds of the fall in gas use overall.

It said above-average temperatures also reduced the need for heating, while continuing very high prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused weak underlying demand for gas.

Reflecting both of these factors, there was a 6% drop in domestic demand in 2023, accounting for a fifth of the overall decline in gas consumption. A similar 7% drop in commercial demand for gas accounted for another tenth of the total, with a 5% drop in industrial demand the remainder.

Finally, the figure shows that there was a small reduction in gas demand and associated CO2 emissions as a result of increased wind and solar generation.

Carbon Brief said the impact of rising wind and solar capacity in 2023 was muted by average windspeeds being below average and the average number of sun hours falling sharply compared with 2022.

It continued the UK’s emissions would have fallen even further in 2023 if not for a 15% decline in the output of the nation’s nuclear fleet. This followed the closure in 2022, of the Hunterston B station in Scotland and the Hinkley Point B plant in Somerset, as well as maintenance outages.

“The decline in 2023 means UK nuclear output fell to the lowest level since the early 1980s,” it stated. “Following the site closures in 2022, the UK only has five operational nuclear power plants remaining, all but one of which – Sizewell B in Suffolk – are due to close this decade.”

After gas, the next-largest driver of falling UK emissions in 2023 was coal, accounting for around 14% of the overall drop in emissions Carbon Brief said.

“The decline of coal use in the UK – for homes, railways, factories and power stations – is a major part of the long-term reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the past 30 years,” it added. “Factors in this long-term decline include controls on domestic coal burning to limit air pollution, the end of steam railways, the shift from coal-based ‘town gas’ to ‘natural’ gas from the North Sea, the deindustrialisation of the 1970s and the ‘dash for gas’ of the 1990s.

“More recently, coal demand has dropped precipitously as the rapid build-out of renewable sources of electricity has combined with falling demand and carbon pricing that favours gas.”

The recent reduction of coal demand is largely down to the demise of coal power, which made up around 40% of the UK’s electricity generation as recently as 2012. Coal power output has fallen by 97% over the past decade, accounting for 87% of the fall in UK coal demand overall.

Coal use fell by 23% in 2023 to its lowest level since the 1730s, as all but one of the UK’s remaining coal-fired power stations closed down.