Actual good news

James S Murray
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The UK's 2019 emissions figures prove decarbonisation is possible without harming living standards
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The UK's 2019 emissions figures prove decarbonisation is possible without harming living standards

The world may be reeling from unprecedented public health crisis, but the UK's latest greenhouse gas figures offer genuine cause for optimism

UK emissions are down. By a lot. And it has nothing to do with Covid-19.

That, in a nutshell, was the shining gem of good news in another otherwise bleak day down the news mine.

The government today published its preliminary emissions and energy data for 2019 and while there were few surprises it offered confirmation that last year was another very good year for the UK's decarbonisation efforts.

Emissions were down 3.6 per cent on the year, low carbon power accounted for over 54 per cent of the electricity mix, renewables capacity rose nearly seven per cent, coal generation was negligible, even transport emissions ticked downwards. Overall, UK emissions are now down over 45 per cent since 1990.

It is, as Energy and Clean Growth Minister Kwasi Kwarteng observed, "extraordinary progress".

Of course, it is vital that any discussion of the UK's decarbonisation efforts comes with a truck load of caveats. Recent government data suggests the UK's imported emissions are falling, but they are doing so at a much slower rate than domestic emissions. Even on the domestic front we are still not cutting emissions fast enough to be on a trajectory for net zero emissions by 2050.

It also remains painfully true that the next decade of emissions reductions will prove harder to realise than those seen over the past decade. Cutting emissions from power generation has been tough. Virtually eradicating emissions from power generation, while slashing emissions from buildings, industry, agriculture, and transport - and building a negative emissions industry from scratch - is an order of magnitude harder. 

But even when these legitimate concerns are considered there is further genuine good news and causes for optimism to be found in today's data. 

Transport emissions are falling for the first time in years and electric vehicles provide a path to deep decarbonisation. Less than a decade ago esteemed experts would confidently predict offshore wind would never be cost competitive. Now it is on track to become the backbone of the UK's power system. Political commentators insisted the Tories would never revive onshore wind and solar farms. Two months ago they did precisely that. Even key players in carbon intensive sectors such as aviation, steel, cement, mining, farming, shipping,and oil and gas are starting to set net zero targets. The recent Budget (was that really only a fortnight ago?) may have been completely overshadowed by the escalating coronavirus crisis, but it also provided some further foundation stones for a credible net zero strategy.

Emissions will fall sharply again this year, but this time for tragic reasons. Renewables' share of the power mix will soar (and we will get a snapshot view of how the grid copes) as energy demand slumps.

As such, when the pandemic crisis eventually passes, the usual suspects will declare 'see, that is the level of societal and economic pain required to cut emissions'. They are already rehearsing their arguments, even as the crisis escalates.

Today's data and the UK's decarbonisation record over the past decade provides crucial evidence that is simply not true. We can cut emissions and transition to net zero emissions without harming living standards. Indeed, we have no choice but to do so.
 
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing email, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.

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