There has been a lot of discussion recently on the exciting news that the United Kingdom (U.K.) is halfway to net zero carbon emissions.
We are also halfway through the timeline from the baseline set at 1990 levels to the net zero goal set at 2050—30 years have passed and there are 30 years to go. So the news that U.K. emissions have halved at the halfway point would seem reason for optimism. It would suggest we are on track. And things can only get better as individuals become ever more aware and ever more environmentally conscious.
Increasing numbers of businesses are measuring, reporting and reducing their carbon footprints. Households and businesses are replacing cars fueled by dinosaurs with cars fueled by electricity. And the U.K. government seems confident, announcing the latest carbon reduction target of 78% by 2035 – exactly where we would be if today, we are halfway there.
But is it all as it seems?
In 1990s, the U.K.’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions stood at 794 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. That is the baseline for the U.K.’s climate goals, including the net zero target under its legally binding Climate Change Act and its international pledge to the Paris Agreement. That is to say that net zero was formulated in law as cutting greenhouse gas emissions to at least 100% below 1990 levels by 2050.
It has taken 30 years—and a pandemic—for UK emissions to fall 51%. 2020 alone saw a drop in carbon emissions estimated at between 9 and 17%. However, there will be an end to the pandemic, or at least an end to its economic impact. This will inevitably slow our progress to net zero. Indeed, many are predicting an energy use boom. And further deceleration may be caused by the inclusion of international aviation that is currently excluded. Or by inclusion of emissions associated with U.K. consumption of goods and services imported from abroad. The shipping industry itself has now called for a new global carbon tax.
There are further factors that have brought us to our 51% reduction. These have genuinely reduced carbon emissions.
For a start, there has been an irreversible move away from coal. In 1990, coal made up two thirds of electricity generation; the power sector was the largest contributor to the nations emissions. Oil power made up 10% of generation and 2% came from renewables.
Then there are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), as 1990 is the year that the Montreal Protocol was strengthened to ban CFCs in industrial countries—and by 2010 in developing countries, the economies of many of which have since thrived and indeed become more industrialized.
CFCs are greenhouse gases much more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) itself, and so their removal contributes a larger proportion from the CO2 equivalent measure. Methane is also a greenhouse gas that is more potent than CO2 itself. Landfills in the 1990s lacked the emissions controls of today, so more methane leaked from landfill, gas fields and the U.K. coal mines, which are now lost.
Notwithstanding the as-yet unknown balance of that most potent of greenhouse gases, sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). SF6 is necessary in electricity distribution, such as will be needed for the increasing move over to electricity. SF6 has 22,800 CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per kilogram (kg), primarily because it remains in the atmosphere for 3,200 years; the very quality of stability that makes it so useful as a gas insulator in our electricity substations.
If we are to continue to build on our success with carbon emission reductions to date, perhaps we should not rush to popular solutions. Instead let us step back and make valid and considered choices that will genuinely reduce our carbon footprint as individuals—and so each of us make our contribution to cutting carbon emissions worldwide.