The UK’s Drop in CO2 Emissions Shows the Power of Carbon Taxes

A new analysis indicates that the UK’s CO2 output is at a record low, and it’s largely down to one major action: a reduction in coal use.

Released by the climate science and policy website Carbon Brief, the report suggests that coal use has significantly declined to 36 percent below 1990 levels. In fact, the CO2 pollution level in 2016 was around 381m tonnes. Scientists believe this figure to be the lowest operating level — discounting the mining disputes of the 1920s — since 1894.

The analysis examines the UK’s own Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy figures, and identifies a few factors driving the fall of coal.

Carbon Brief notes that these include cheaper gas prices, the UK’s carbon taxes and the expansion of renewable and green energy sources. Other influences like the general drop in energy demand, as well as the closure of several large scale manufacturing operations that once relied on coal — the closure of the Redcar steelworks facility, for example — have also played a significant part in decreasing dependence on coal.

A summary of the analysis notes that continuing this trend will require firm commitments from the British government — something that isn’t guaranteed:

Coal use has fallen 74% since 2006 and is now 12 times below the record 221Mt used in 1956.

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Perhaps the most consequential factor, however, is the UK’s top-up carbon tax, which doubled in 2015 to £18 per tonne of CO2. The future of the carbon price floor is uncertain; it has only be fixed out to 2021.

The government has pledged to close all coal-fired power stations by 2025, and 2016 saw significant steps toward that goal with the closure of three coal facilities.

If this all sounds a bit too good to be true though, there is a catch.

The UK’s rising gas use could be a problem.

One of the major reasons for coal’s demise is the switch to a much cheaper alternative: gas. In fact, the analysis shows that carbon emissions from gas rose by about 12.5 percent. As New Scientist notes, this is still well below levels of gas used in the 2000s, but it isn’t an encouraging trends. The 2015 Paris Agreement made it abundantly clear we need to reduce and eliminate all fossil fuel use.

To a lesser extent, this pattern was also evident in oil use, which rose by 1.6 percent. However, it should be noted that lower oil prices may be largely responsible for that increase. That said, there is some evidence to suggest that the UK’s faltering — but still significant — economic growth may have increased business road use. And that would obviously add to the figure.

The UK’s wavering commitment to green energy

Another significant red flag came from British Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s budget announcement last week. For one thing, the budget failed to mention Brexit. Given that so much remains uncertain about what will happen after Article 50 is triggered and the UK begins the formal process of leaving the EU, this perhaps isn’t that surprising. Even so, it did little to reassure environmental advocates that emissions targets will be met during Britain’s exit from the EU.

However, what was also glaringly absent from the chancellor’s budget was any significant mention of the environment, particularly where it related to climate change and energy. In fact, the only significant mention came when Hammond stated that the government will aid the oil and gas industry in maximizing exploitation of North Sea reserves.

Renewable energy supporters also hoped that the government would back down on a planned solar energy tax. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. As the Independent reports:

But the UK solar industry lost 12,000 jobs last year and there has been an 85 per cent reduction in the deployment of rooftop solar schemes.

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Some 44,000 solar “microgenerators” who are currently exempt from business rates could be faced with a bill of hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds.

In fact, industry commentators are worried that the solar energy sector could see an increase in rates of up to 800 percent. That kind of levy on businesses adopting solar panels, they say, risks harming or even killing the industry. While accepting that solar energy cannot be propped up by government grants and adoption schemes forever, other energy experts have noted that the gradual reduction in the UK’s commitment to green energy is another sign of failure.

The Carbon Brief analysis shows us that significant reductions in fossil fuel use are possible, and that they may be aided by governmental policy like taxing CO2-producing fuels — something we should consider expanding to all fossil fuels. However, the UK’s progress was — to some extent — offset by the resurgence of gas and oil, emphasizing just how fragile such progress can be.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

41 comments

Marie W
Marie W5 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Colin Clauscen
Colin C8 months ago

Yes carbon tax is the way to go

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Janis K
Janis K8 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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David P
David P9 months ago

Good news!

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darcia hurst
darcia hurst9 months ago

Nice some progress, hope they continue to pave a positive path!

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william Miller
william Miller9 months ago

thanks

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M Q
M Q9 months ago

Good news! Nice to see the carbon tax works.

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Aria Spenser
Cruel J9 months ago

The US doesn't have to worry about this, it has Trump the Terrible.

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Jeff C
Jeff Creech9 months ago

Noted.

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John B
John B9 months ago

Thanks Steve for sharing the info and links. It's a start but more needs to be done, not only in the UK but here in the US, but to do that we need to make sure Trump doesn't completely destroy the EPA.

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