Emissions fell for sixth year running in 2018, but reductions margins have shrunk
— The government has been warned against complacency on climate change action after figures showed a slowdown in the rate of Britain’s carbon emission cuts.
Emissions dropped for the sixth year running in 2018, to 361m tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent, a level last seen in the late 19th century.
But there are signs the country’s recent period of rapid progress is drawing to a close. The estimated 1.5% decline last year was considerably smaller than the 3.2% fall in 2017 and the 8.7% drop in 2014: the biggest in recent years.
Labour, which has pitched itself as more radical than the government on climate change action, said the figures showed the need to speed up decarbonisation.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary, said: “The government are wrong to be complacent about the UK’s falling emissions when we know that winning slowly on climate change is the same as losing.”
UK emissions have been on a long-term trend downwards over the past three decades, and the pace has picked up in recent years.
Coal power’s decline over the past decade accounted for three-quarters of CO2 reductions over that period, according to the website Carbon Brief, which estimates emissions from an analysis of government energy data.
Simon Evans, the policy editor at the group, said: “The lion’s share of recent CO2 reductions in the UK have been due to falling coal use.”
But he said that with coal power now accounting for 5% of electricity generation, the scope for additional emissions cuts was “increasingly limited”.
One major coal power station in Yorkshire closed last year, and another in Nottinghamshire is to close in September.
The economics of UK coal power have deteriorated in recent years. Ministers have promised to shut the last seven plants by 2025, though market forces mean that landmark could be reached earlier, in 2023.
While the power sector has driven most of the UK’s recent emissions cuts, other sectors have either stalled or got worse.
The Carbon Brief figures show oil and gas use – primarily used for vehicles, power and heating – have barely changed over the past few years. Transport has become the biggest single polluting sector, overtaking energy.
Evans said: “The UK will not be able to meet its legally-binding climate goals in future without progress across all fuels and sectors.”
The Committee on Climate Change, the government’s climate advisers, recently said that emissions have begun to increase in some sectors, such as construction.
Experts said future emissions cuts would not necessarily be more costly, but would be politically harder.
Michael Grubb, professor of energy and climate change at University College London, said: “The next steps involve more coordination of government efforts – the infrastructure and industrial policy dimensions of electric vehicles, coordination of zero carbon homes with housing policy.
“I don’t see higher costs, but tougher lobbying and coordination problems which can’t easily be tackled through economic instruments or auctions [as seen in the power sector].”
Carbon Brief has a strong track record of closely predicting the official emissions figures, which will be published by the government later in March.
by Adam Vaughan | The Guardian