UK greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 2.8% in 2019

The UK’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions decreased by 2.8% in 2019, according to the latest government figures.

In 2019, the UK's net territorial emissions (occurred within UK borders) of the basket of seven GHGs covered by the Kyoto Protocol (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulphur hexafluoride, and nitrogen trifluoride) were estimated to be 454.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e), a decrease of 2.8% compared to the 2018 figure of 468.1 million tonnes and 43.8% lower than they were in 1990.

Carbon dioxide made up around 80% of the 2019 total, with methane at 12%, nitrous oxide 5%, and fluorinated gases at 3%.

According to the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the decrease in GHG emissions from 2018 was mainly caused by reductions in emissions in the energy supply sector, down 8.1% (8.4 MtCO2e). This was driven by the continued decrease in power station emissions due to the change in the fuel mix for electricity generation, in particular a reduction in the use of coal. Emissions from energy supply are now 65.5% lower than they were in 1990.

Transport emissions

Emissions from transport fell by 1.8% (2.2 Mt CO2e) in 2019, their second year in decline having previously risen since 2013. Despite this, transport remains the largest emitting sector, responsible for 27% of all GHG emissions in the UK. Transport emissions are only 4.6% lower than in 1990, as increased road traffic has largely offset improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency.

Between 1990 and 2019, there has been relatively little overall change in the level of GHG emissions from the transport sector, according to the BEIS figures. Between 1990 and 2007 (when emissions peaked), there was a general increasing trend, with some fluctuations year-to-year. After this peak, emissions dropped each year until 2013, at which point the trend reversed to show small increases most years. The overall effects of these fluctuations over time means emissions are estimated to have been around 5% lower in 2019 than in 1990.

Energy supply sector emissions

The UK’s energy supply sector consists of emissions from fuel combustion for electricity generation and other energy production sources. It’s estimated to have been responsible for 21% of UK GHG emissions in 2019, with CO2 being by far the most prominent gas for this sector at 94%. The main source of emissions from this sector is the combustion of fuels in electricity generation from power stations.

Figures show there was an 8% fall in emissions from the energy supply sector between 2018 and 2019, meaning that between 1990 and 2019, they have reduced by 66%. This decrease has resulted mainly from changes in the mix of fuels being used for electricity generation, including the growth of renewables, together with greater efficiency resulting from improvements in technology.

There was a 56% decrease in coal use for electricity generation between 2018 and 2019. This follows large falls in the previous three years, driven by the increase in the carbon price floor in April 2015, from £9 (€10.21) per tonne of CO2 to £18 (€20.42) per tonne of CO2, which led to a shift away from coal towards gas.

 Agriculture emissions

The UK agriculture sector consists of emissions from livestock, agricultural soils, stationary combustion sources, and off-road machinery. It’s estimated to have been responsible for 10% of GHG emissions in the UK in 2019. Emissions of methane (54%) and nitrous oxide (32%) dominate this sector.

The most significant sources here are emissions of methane due to enteric fermentation from livestock – particularly cattle – and nitrous oxide emissions related to the use of fertilisers.

Between 2018 and 2019 there was a 1% increase in emissions from the agriculture sector, largely due to an increase in CO2 emissions from liming. Between 1990 and 2019, GHG emissions in this sector decreased by around 13%, with a general downward trend in emissions since the late 1990s. This was driven by a fall in animal numbers and a decrease in synthetic fertiliser use.

Waste management emissions

This sector consists of emissions from waste disposed of to landfill sites, waste incineration, and wastewater treatment. It’s estimated to have been responsible for around 4% of GHG emissions in the UK in 2019, with methane being by far the most prominent gas (90% of emissions). The vast majority of emissions came from landfill sites.

Emissions from the waste management sector decreased by 1% between 2018 and 2019, mainly due to reduced landfill emissions. Between 1990 and 2019, GHG emissions decreased by 71%, this was due to a combination of factors, including improvements in the standards of landfilling, changes to the types of waste going to landfill (e.g. reducing the amount of biodegradable waste), and an increase in the amount of landfill gas being used for energy.

Land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF)

The LULUCF sector consists of emissions and removals from forest land, cropland, grassland, settlements, and harvested wood products. Following a major methodology change this year to better represent emissions from drained and rewetted inland organic soils (peatlands), the BEIS now estimates this sector to be a net source of GHG emissions in each year from the start of the data series in 1990.

In 2020, the government estimated it to be a net sink of GHGs in the UK throughout the series, meaning that it removed GHGs from the atmosphere. In general, settlements and cropland are the largest sources of CO2 emissions, while forest land is the dominant sink. Following the peatlands methodology change, the government now estimates that grasslands have been a net source of emissions over most of the time series, before becoming a small net sink from 2013 onwards.

The LULUCF sector is estimated to have had net emissions of 5.9 MtCO2e in 2019. This has risen slightly in the last two years but is down from a total of 18 MtCO2e in 1990. This long-term fall has been driven by a reduction in emissions from cropland and grassland and an increase in the sink provided by forest land, with an increasing uptake of CO2 by trees as they reach maturity, in line with the historical planting pattern.

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