Q3 2017: The low carbon electricity league table

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by Dr Iain Staffell – Imperial College London 

In its first year, Electric Insights charted the rapid changes that are cleaning up Britain’s power system. But how does Britain’s power sector compare to other major countries? 

Carbon emissions from electricity halved in the last four years thanks to the growth of renewable energy, and the switch from coal to gas driven by the UK’s carbon price. But how does Britain’s power sector compare to other major countries? 

We compiled data on the generation mix and the resulting carbon intensity of the world’s largest power systems, and rank them in the chart below. Britain’s pace of decarbonisation is unrivalled: the carbon intensity of electricity production has fallen more than twice as fast as any other major country.2 This comes as PwC report that the UK came top of their 2017 Low Carbon Economy Index. 

The low carbon electricity league table for 2012 and 2016.1 The 33 countries which produce over 100 TWh of electricity per year are ranked by their carbon intensity of production. Lines show countries which have moved by more than one place in the ranking. 

The energy sector is conservative and usually slow to change as infrastructure has long lifetimes. While Britain’s carbon intensity halved, most other countries have only moved by 10% over the last four years. 

In 2012, Britain was ranked 20th out of 33. In the four years since, Britain has jumped 13 places to become 7th. The most any other country has moved was 8 places by the Netherlands – and that was in the wrong direction. 

While coal generation in Britain fell 80% between 2012 and 2016, it rose by 40% in the Netherlands. Coal usage has increased in the Netherlands specifically as three new coal power stations were built there recently. Another thing that separates these countries is the Carbon Price Floor – Britain charges £23 per tonne of CO2 versus just £5 per tonne on the continent. Weakening or scrapping the carbon price now could see Britain slide back down the table just as fast as it climbed. 

Most countries in the ranking lie in the region of 400 to 600 g/kWh. Four years ago, Britain sat centrally among the mid-table countries from Italy to Saudi Arabia, which are powered by various mixes of coal, gas and nuclear, hydro and other renewables. India and South Africa have the dirtiest power sectors, powered by 75–90% coal. The top six are all under 200 g/kWh, and are either mountainous 
countries blessed with substantial hydropower resources, or heavily rely on nuclear power (France has 58 reactors).3 

The make-up of the top six suggests it could be difficult for Britain’s electricity to decarbonise much further without a massive shift in either geography or opinion towards infrastructure megaprojects. Nonetheless, Britain’s example shows just what can be achieved in four years with a modest price on carbon emissions. 

Authors: Dr Iain StaffellProfessor Richard GreenDr Rob Gross and Professor Tim Green 

  1. Compiled using data from: Electric Insights, IEA CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion, IEA World Energy Balances, EIA Electric Power Monthly, Arbeitsgemeinschaft Energiebilanzen, EuroStat Energy Statistics and BP Statistical Review of World Energy. 
  2. Britain’s carbon intensity fell by 241 g/kWh from 516 to 275 g/kWh. The next largest fall was 90 g/kWh in Australia (805 to 715 g/kWh). France and Sweden also registered large percentage decreases, but only fell by 21 and 5 g/kWh in absolute terms, as they started with such clean systems. 
  3. Note that hydro output varies from year to year with the level of rainfall, hence these countries register large changes (in percentage terms) as more or less backup power from fossil fuels is required. 2012 was a wet year for Brazil, so its carbon intensity was unusually low, hence the higher carbon intensity in 2016. 

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