Official estimates credit ongoing decline in coal power for sharp cut in UK greenhouse gases in 2016, although transport emissions continue to rise
UK greenhouse gases fell five cent in 2016, thanks in large part to the drop off in coal-fired power generation, according to the latest official statistical release from the government today.
The data also confirmed that the rapid decarbonisation of the UK power sector has pushed transport ahead of energy as the single largest emitting sector across the economy for the first time.
Total greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 - the most recent year for which estimates are available - reached 468 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e), a fall of five per cent on 2015 levels.
Overall, it means UK greenhouse gases have fallen 41 per cent since 1990. The Climate Change Act sets a statutory target to for the UK to cut its emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050 from 1990 levels.
The performance puts the UK comfortably on track to meet the legally binding second carbon budget period, which runs through to 2017 and requires an emissions cut of 31 per cent on 1990 levels.
According to the data, every year since 2013 has resulted in emissions well below the average emissions level dictated by the annual budget of 556.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
Commenting on the figures, a government spokesperson emphasised that the UK had "the best performance of any G7 nation" on decarbonisation, having cut emissions by more than 40 per cent since 1990 while growing its economy by more than two thirds.
"We want to build on this success, which is why clean growth is at the heart of our ambitious Industrial Strategy, ensuring the UK is well placed to take advantage of the economic opportunities presented by the switch to a low carbon economy," a government statement said.
However, concerns remain as to how the UK will meet its fourth and fifth carbon budgets. Planned emissions cuts outlined in last year's Clean Growth Strategy for the period from 2023 to 2032 as it stands fall short of the cuts necessary to meet statutory targets.
The latest statistical report today credits the lion's share of 2016's strong performance to reductions in emissions from the energy supply sector, which fell almost 17 per cent compared to 2015, driven by a continuing shift away from coal-fired power to an increased use of gas and renewables.
Strong performance was also seen in the business sector, which achieved a 5.4 per cent year-on-year cut in greenhouse gases in 2016, driven largely by a reduction in emissions from fuel used in the iron and steel sector due to the closure of the Redcar steel plant in September 2015.
For comparison, the energy sector achieved a 12 per cent reduction in emissions in 2015, while the business sector cut its greenhouse gases by less than three per cent the previous year.
However, news was less positive for the UK's transport sector, where emissions rose by another two per cent in 2016, continuing a trend that also saw emission tick up two per cent in 2015.
It means that, for the first time, transport is now the highest emitting sector of the economy, responsible for around 26 per cent of the UK's greenhouse gases, with the energy sector just behind on 25 per cent. The main source of emissions in the transport sector was the use of petrol and diesel in road vehicles, particularly in passenger cars, according to the data.
Moreover, having seen a significant year-on-year drop in emissions of more than seven per cent in 2015, the waste management sector saw greenhouse gases actually increase in 2016 by five per cent, due to a rise in emissions from landfilled waste.
With China having banned foreign imports of waste material for recycling in recent months, pressure on UK landfill sites could well intensify from this year onwards, with the domestic waste sector having been heavily reliant on China in particular for recycling UK paper and plastics - a practice that also helped push associated greenhouse gas emissions offshore.
Tackling emissions from agriculture also continues to be a challenge, with greenhouse gases from the sector again remaining flat year-on-year in 2016. Agriculture is overall responsible for 10 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions.
Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Simon Bullock welcomed the overall fall in emissions, but said the transport sector was "failing to play its part" in tackling climate change.
"Transport Secretary Chris Grayling must play catch-up fast - his department can't continue to crawl along in the slow lane when it comes to tackling climate change," he said. "And if we want to play our part in international efforts to prevent global warming we must do even more, raising our ambition to match the Paris Agreement and taking immediate measures such as allowing communities to build onshore wind and solar and ensuring all new homes are zero carbon."
While work to decarbonise the power sector remains ongoing, transport's rise to the top of the emissions heap is likely to catapult it to the top of the political agenda. Forget coal, which is now destined to be forced off the grid within a few years - its petrol and diesel cars that are now next in line for bold climate action.
This article was updated on 7 Feb to amend the statistic on agriculture's contribution to UK emissions, and to add the comment from the government spokesperson.
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