Annual carbon emissions in the UK fell by more than 37 per cent between 1990 and 2017 to 373 million tonnes, according to new figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Greenhouse gas emissions, which also include methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, dropped 42 per cent to 460 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e)

By far the biggest reduction came from the energy sector (mainly power and excluding gas supply) which lowered its carbon emissions by 56 per cent to 106 million tonnes.

This was despite an 8 per cent increase in electricity generation and consumption. Both peaked in 2005 and have been declining since.

The energy sector accounted for roughly 61 per cent of the overall reduction in carbon emissions, with its share of the yearly total shrinking from 41 per cent in 1990 to 28 per cent in 2017. It was overtaken by transport as the largest source of carbon emissions in 2016.

BEIS said the decrease was mainly the result of the changing generation mix, with coal being replaced by gas and renewables. Total greenhouse gas emissions from energy supply plunged by 59 per cent to 113MtCO2e.

The department also revealed the UK has easily met its second carbon budget covering the period 2013 to 2017, with greenhouse gas emissions coming in 384MtCO2e below the cap of 2,782MtCO2e.

Progress against carbon budgets

Source: BEIS

Meanwhile, analysis by Carbon Brief has found carbon emissions from the power sector would have been almost four times higher in 2017 if the generation mix had remained the same as in 1990 and electricity consumption had risen in line with population growth from 2005 onwards.

The climate change website said the transition to renewables accounted for 37 per cent of the reduction seen between 1990 and 2017. Lower electricity usage since 2005 – largely due to improvements in energy efficiency – was responsible for 33 per cent and coal-to-gas switching for 27 per cent.

Nina Skorupska, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association, said: “The data released today (5 February) by the government is a huge achievement for the UK and a testament to the effectiveness of how targeted government support and industrial innovation can work together to deliver a clear public good.

“Further analysis showing the shift towards renewable power generation and energy-efficiency being at the core of this reduction has served to validate the work of the industry and inspire us to continue to strive towards cheaper, greener and smarter energy.”

She continued: “We’ve made strong progress in the power sector and it’s clear that transport needs to be maintained as a priority area, but we have seen major policy support emerge in 2018 that is encouraging the decarbonisation of transport.

“The worrying question in this data, however, is decarbonising heat in the absence of a clear plan. With the possibility of further changes to our electricity and gas networks needed to support the transition, the earlier the industry can have sight on the governments’ vision for heat, the better.”

Energy UK chief executive Lawrence Slade said: “These figures highlight how the UK power sector continues to lead the way in cutting emissions and decarbonising our economy – with around half of the overall reduction in UK emissions since 1990 coming from the energy supply sector…

“However we must go further and faster if we are to meet our climate change targets and – as these figures underline – we must see greater progress in other sectors including heat and transport.”