UK Carbon Emissions Fall to 19th Century Levels as Government Phases Out Coal

The switch to natural gas and a stiff tax on CO2 have helped drop emissions 36% below those in 1990. Will Brexit retard future progress?

The Ferrybridge coal-fired power station in the UK officially closed in 2016, after 50 years in service. A new analysis shows the UK’s CO2 emissions fell by nearly 6 percent in 2016, after a more than 50 percent drop in coal use. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Carbon dioxide emissions in the United Kingdom declined by 6 percent in 2016 thanks to a record 52 percent drop in coal use, according to a report published Friday by the London-based climate policy website Carbon Brief.

Coal suffered at the hands of cheap natural gas, plentiful renewables, energy conservation and a stiff tax on greenhouse gas emissions, the group said.

The latest reductions put the country's carbon dioxide emissions 36 percent below 1990 levels. The UK hasn't seen emissions so low since the late 19th century, when coal was king in British households and industry. Coal emissions have fallen 74 percent since 2006.

The dramatic cuts reflect ambitious efforts by the UK in recent years to tackle climate change. In Nov. 2015 the country announced it would phase out all coal-powered electricity plants by 2025. But in the past year, cheaper renewables flooded the market, pushing coal aside. Last May, the country for the first time generated more electricity from solar power than from coal, with coal emissions falling to zero for several days. In 2016 as a whole, wind power also generated more electricity than coal.

The broad fall in carbon dioxide emissions in 2016 came despite a 12.5 percent increase in pollution from burning natural gas, which competes both with coal and with renewables, and a 1.6 percent increase from oil and gasoline use, according to Carbon Brief.

Carbon Brief also attributes the precipitous drop in emissions from coal to the country's carbon tax, which doubled in 2015 to £18 ($22) per metric ton of CO2.

The tax has been "the killer blow for coal in the past 18 months to two years," Peter Atherton of the Cornwall Energy consultancy told the Financial Times. "It's really changed the economics for it."

Some question whether the UK will continue ambitious measures to rein in greenhouse gases and other pollutants after its voters decided to exit the European Union. A leaked European Parliament document, however, suggests the EU will seek to hold the UK to previously agreed environmental targets

The Carbon Brief analysis of emissions is based on energy use figures from the UK's Department of Energy, Business and Industrial Strategy. The department will publish its own CO2 estimates on March 30.

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