UK greenhouse gas emissions fall to lowest level since 1879

The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by 5.7 percent in 2023 to their lowest level since 1879, according to a new analysis from Carbon Brief.The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by 5.7 percent in 2023 to their lowest level since 1879, according to a new analysis from Carbon Brief. According to the report from the researchers, the last time UK emissions were this low, Queen Victoria was on the throne, Benjamin Disraeli was prime minister, Mosley Street in Newcastle became the first road in the world with electric lighting and 59 people died in the Tay Bridge disaster in Dundee.

Carbon Brief’s analysis, based on preliminary government energy data, shows emissions fell to just 383m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) in 2023. This is the first time they have dropped below 400MtCO2e since Victorian times.

Other key findings from the analysis include:

  • The UK’s emissions are now 53 percent below 1990 levels, while GDP has grown by 82 percent.
  • The drop in emissions in 2023 was largely due to an 11 percent fall in gas demand. This was due to higher electricity imports after the French nuclear fleet recovered, above-average temperatures and weak underlying demand driven by high prices.
  • Gas demand would have fallen even faster, but for a 15 percent fall in UK nuclear output.
  • Coal use fell by 23 percent in 2023 to its lowest level since the 1730s, as all but one of the UK’s remaining coal-fired power stations closed down.
  • Transport was the single-largest sector in terms of emissions, followed by buildings industry, agriculture and electricity generation. The electricity sector likely dropped below agriculture for the first time.

While the 23MtCO2e reduction in 2023 was faster than the 14MtCO2e per year average needed to reach net-zero by 2050, it was mostly unrelated to deliberate climate action. The UK will need to address emissions from buildings, transport, industry and agriculture to reach its 2050 target.

The analysis is the latest in a long-running series of annual estimates from Carbon Brief, covering emissions during 2022202020192018201720162015 and 2014. The UK’s territorial greenhouse gas emissions – those that occur within the country’s borders – have now fallen in 25 of the 34 years since 1990.

Apart from brief rebounds after the global financial crisis and the Covid-19 lockdowns, UK emissions have fallen during every year for the past two decades. The latest 23MtCO2e (5.7 percent) reduction in 2023 takes UK emissions down to 383MtCO2e, according to Carbon Brief’s new analysis.

This is the lowest since 1879 – outside the 1926 general strike. The biggest contributor to the drop in UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2023 was an 11 percent reduction in gas demand, which accounted for around two-thirds of last year’s overall decline. This took the UK’s gas demand to its lowest level since the 1980s.

However, the drop in 2023 was not primarily due to deliberate climate action. The most significant factor was the UK returning to its long-term position as a net electricity importer in 2023, reducing demand for domestically generated power from gas by more than 20 percent.

This followed an anomalous year in 2022, when the UK was a net exporter for the first time ever, as a result of widespread outages in the French nuclear fleet. Lower demand for gas power accounted for more than two-thirds of the fall in gas use overall.

Also, above-average temperatures reduced the need for heating, while continuing very high prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused weak underlying demand for gas.

Image: Victoria by Heinrich von Angeli – Royal Collection, Public Domain