Pandemic restrictions a factor in UK emissions getting halfway to net-zero

New analysis by Carbon Brief shows the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 were 51% below 1990 levels

What’s the story?

According to new analysis by Carbon Brief, over the last 30 years UK emissions have fallen 51 percent below 1990 levels, which means the country is now halfway to meeting its target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The year 1990 is used as a baseline for the UK’s climate goals, as this is the year that the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions stood at 794m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e).

Metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2 Eq.)
A metric measure used to compare the emissions from different greenhouse gases based upon their global warming potential (GWP). The carbon dioxide equivalent for a gas is derived by multiplying the tons of the gas by its associated GWP.

A record-breaking 11 percent fall in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, largely due to the lockdowns and restrictions put in place for the coronavirus pandemic, contributed to the UK reaching this milestone. Carbon Brief warns that emissions are likely to rebound this year or next, as the economy recovers.

UK territorial greenhouse gas emissions 1990-2020, millions of tonnes of CO2 equivalent, as measured in the national inventory, and the net-zero target for 2050. The inventory excludes international aviation and shipping, which the Climate Change Committee recommends should be included in the UK’s target. The inventory also excludes emissions associated with the consumption of goods and services made overseas, but imported into the UK. Source: Emissions data from the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Carbon Brief analysis. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

What has contributed to the fall in emissions?

As Carbon Brief explains, the reduction in the use of fossil fuels has had the biggest impact on greenhouse gas emissions produced by the UK.

Back in 1990, the country was very much dependent on coal for electricity. But by 2019, despite economic growth of 80 percent, emissions had fallen by 45 percent. This was due to the electricity supplies relying less on coal; industrial processes becoming cleaner and more efficient, with a structural shift away from carbon-intensive manufacturing; and a smaller and cleaner fossil fuel supply industry.

In 2020, the UK went without coal power for 180 of the 366 days of the leap year, which is a jump from 83 days in 2019 and just 21 days in 2018. Since 2010, there has been a significant expansion in capacity from UK wind farms, solar parks and bioenergy plants, which means that the 43 percent share of electricity generated by renewables was larger than that generated by fossil fuels for the first time in 2020.

According to Carbon Brief, last year’s record decline in CO2 output made the UK CO2 emissions the lowest they have been since 1879, the year Thomas Edison introduced the modern age of light when he invented the incandescent lightbulb.

Oil took a hit during the pandemic

Carbon Brief states the largest contribution to the record-fall in UK emissions last year, was the drop in demand for oil, which crashed by 18 percent year-on-year in 2020, mainly due to the pandemic. However, with emissions from transport barely changing in the 30 years previous, the sector making up more than a quarter of the UK’s emissions in 2019 and little structural change to move transport away from its reliance on fossil fuels, it is expected that this fall in oil use will not stick as restrictions ease and the economy recovers.

Despite the UK government’s 2020 announcement that it will ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, electric vehicles still make up less than 1 percent of the 32 million cars on UK roads, even though sales of electric vehicles now account for more than 10 percent of new car sales in the UK. Critics have warned that the £4bn allocated by the government to implement its 10-point plan to move away from fossil fuel powered cars, is far too small for the scale of the challenge.

More than half of UK CO2 emissions are now from gas

There was a fall gas use in the UK during 2020, partly due to reduced heating demand, as a result of warmer weather, as well as pandemic restrictions meaning retail premises, hospitality venues and large offices were closed. While this meant the use of gas was down 8 percent, the long-term shift to fewer days when central heating is required due to warmer weather is also a result of global warming, which is never a good thing.

A year as warm as 2020 would historically have been expected only once every 90 years, whereas climate change has increased the likelihood to once every other year.

– Carbon Brief

The UK population is up, but emissions are still down

To end on a more positive note, while the UK population has more than doubled over the past century, there is good news that CO2 emissions are now as low as they were per capita in 1853, according to the analysis from Carbon Brief. The chart below shows emissions per capita in the UK, compares to selected countries around the world and the global average in 2020, in tonnes of CO2 per person.

Source: Carbon Brief data with analysis of figures from Carbon Monitor and the World Bank. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

Read more analysis from Carbon Brief here.

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Charli Ferrand Higgins

After a decade working for global and boutique PR and Marketing agencies in Sydney, with clients that included some of the biggest consumer brands in the world, Charli returned to her homeland of the UK in 2017 and decided the time had come to use her professional skills and experience for good. She has since split her time between supporting passionate, purpose-driven small and medium-sized businesses to grow through conscious content marketing, managing and editing the planet-positive content hub Earth Collective (, and hosting the podcast Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business for SMEs.

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