The UK’s per capita emissions haven’t been this low in 150 years

For all the talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we rarely have the opportunity to present long-term success stories (at least so far). But a quick look at how the UK’s per capita CO2 emissions have changed over the past 200 years shows that there is still some reason for optimism.

In 1926, the UK was marked by a General Strike triggered by lowering coal prices (and subsequently, miner wages). Barring the anomalous year, the country’s emissions haven’t been this low since the 1850s, and the quickly decelerating trend that started in the late 1990s seems to continue today (although the pandemic may tamper with the few following years).

In other words, the UK’s per capita emissions are now at the same level they were at the end of the Industrial Revolution, despite a living standard that has grown tremendously. The estimated UK greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 49% between the 1990 baseline and 2020.

In truth, the UK isn’t even doing all that amazing compared to other European countries of comparable economic situation — although it’s doing far better than the US.

Instead, the striking difference comes from how much CO2 Britain was emitting at the time. It’s not that the UK is emitting few emissions now, it’s that it was emitting a lot already in the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution was powered by coal, and coal is the dirtiest form of fossil fuel. Any shift from coal can go a long way towards reducing emissions.

A lot more to go

Despite notable improvements, the UK still has a long way to go before it can claim to be sustainable. Coal has largely been replaced by natural gas, and although renewables are starting to produce a significant part of the total energy mix, around three quarters of Britain’s energy comes from fossil fuels.

If we look just at electricity, things do look a bit better and we get a glimpse of how renewables are indeed starting to grow. Although electricity is just a part of the above-mentioned energy consumption, it’s noteworthy that in 2020, renewables surpassed fossil fuels in energy generation for the first time in the country’s history. Wind power alone contributed 25% of electricity generation in 2020.

According to a recent analysis, the UK is about halfway to reaching its net zero emissions target — but this was the easier half. Shifting to renewable energy is an important step, but it also needs to be complemented by things like sustainable transportation and agriculture. As the economy rebounds after the pandemic, emissions are also expected to rise and compensate for what happened during the pandemic.

Overall, the UK — like the rest of the world — has a lot of work to do. But undoing almost two centuries of emissions in two decades offers some hope for the future. Moving to a greener and more sustainable future is extremely difficult; but maybe, just maybe, it can be done.

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