Q4 2019: Britain’s decade of decarbonisation

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by Dr Iain Staffell – Imperial College London

Looking back over the last decade, Britain’s power system has changed beyond recognition. 

Carbon emissions from electricity consumption fell by almost two-thirds, the fastest rate of decarbonisation anywhere in the world. Emissions fell 14% in the last year alone, quelling fears that low-carbon generation has stalled.

Electricity generation added 2.6 tonnes of CO2 to every Brit’s carbon footprint back in 2010. Last year, that fell below 1 tonne for the first time since the 1940s. A major cause of this has been reducing our reliance on coal and gas.

Carbon emissions1 and electricity generation from fossil fuels:

Generation from fossil fuels fell every single year during the decade, and last year was no exception with an 8% fall from 2018. Britain’s power system now burns half as much fossil fuel as it did in 2010, saving the equivalent of 32 million tonnes of oil each year.2 This is roughly the total consumption of all cars, vans and lorries on Britain’s roads. Given that 40% of the UK’s fossil fuels are imported, this has a significant impact on the country’s trade deficit, reducing our energy import bill by around £3.6 billion each year.

In contrast, output from renewables has grown every year, with output in 2019 being more than eight times higher than in 2010. The capacity of wind, solar, biomass and hydro has grown six-fold in that time, from 5.2 GW in 2010 to 38.5 GW in 2019.

Share of generation from renewables and electricity demand: 

Electricity demand has fallen steadily over the decade even though the population has grown 7% and GDP risen by a quarter in that time.3 Britain now consumes one-eighth less electricity, through a combination of shifting economic production, milder winters meaning less demand for electric heating, and improving energy efficiency. For example, a modern 42” LCD TV has triple the screen area of an old 21” square TV, but uses only half as much electricity.

1: This includes the emissions released abroad due to imported electricity and the biomass supply chain. See the Electric Insights methodology page for more detail.

2: Comparing 2019 to 2010, 38 million tonnes of coal has been saved (equivalent to 23 million tonnes of oil), and 10 billion m3 of natural gas (equivalent to 9 million tonnes of oil). The current market value of these savings is approximately £2.2 and £1.4 billion respectively.

3: Population grew from 62.8 to 66.9 million people, and GDP rose from £1.7 to £2.2 trillion, according to the Office of National Statistics

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