Transport holding back emission reductions

Despite reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the UK across 2016/17, a failure to tackle emissions produced by transport is holding back further decreases, with emissions from transport only falling by two per cent since 1990.


Image: David Holt

Green World

The UK’s total greenhouse emissions are estimated to have decreased between 2016 and 2017, according to the latest government statistics, though emissions in the agriculture and waste sectors have increased and emissions from transport have not changed, leading to calls for greater government investment in the green economy.

The ‘Final UK greenhouse gas emissions national statistics: 1990-2017’ document, released today (5 February) by the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), shows that total greenhouse gas emissions fell by three per cent across 2016/17, to 460 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e). Total carbon dioxide emissions – the most prevalent greenhouse gas, accounting for 81 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK in 2017 – also fell by three per cent to 373 millions tonnes CO2e.

From 1990 to 2017, the government statistics estimate that the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 42.1 per cent, while the total carbon dioxide emissions have fallen by 37.4 per cent.

The UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 42.1 per cent


In terms of individual sectors, four of the seven sectors listed registered a fall in emissions between 2016 and 2017: energy supply (eight per cent), business (two per cent), residential (four per cent) and other (two per cent). However, emissions from agriculture and waste management both increased by one percent, while no change was recorded for transport.

The flatlining of transport emissions reductions is significant, given that the sector was responsible for 27 per cent of all the greenhouse gas emissions in the UK in 2017, the highest percentage of any industry. While other sectors have experienced significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 – energy supply emissions have fallen by 60 per cent – emissions coming from transport have only fallen by two per cent across the 27-year period, holding back further reductions as a whole.

The BEIS statistics show that while the volume of emissions from passenger cars has generally decreased from the mid-2000s due to improvements in fuel efficiency in petrol and diesel cars, this decrease has been partially offset by an increase in emissions from light duty vehicles.

The statistics also chart the UK’s progress against the carbon budgets set by the Climate Change Act 2008, which established a legally binding framework to reduce the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent (from 1990 baselines) by 2050.

The UK has met the second carbon budget for the period 2013-17


BEIS estimates that the UK has met the second carbon budget for the period 2013-17, with emissions standing at 2,398.1 million tonnes CO2e, which is 383.9 million tonnes below the cap. The final statement for the second carbon budget will be released in May 2019.

In addition, the statistics also provide estimates of greenhouse gas emissions produced by international aviation and shipping, using data collected from refuelling at bunkers at UK airports and ports, whether by UK or non-UK operators. In 2017, emissions from international aviation fuel grew by four per cent from 2016 to a volume of 35 million tonnes CO2e. Between 1990 and 2006, emissions more than doubled, going from 15.5 million tonnes CO2e a year to 35.6 million tonnes CO2e, with emissions flattening out thereafter. Emissions from UK international shipping bunkers were estimated to stand at 7.8 million tonnes CO2e in 2017, down nine per cent from 2016.

Increasing urgency

The release of the statistics comes at a time where global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are coming under increasing scrutiny. In October 2018, a report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that global temperatures are already 1.1ºC above pre-industrial levels and that these rises must be limited to 1.5ºC within 12 years to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The IPCC report states that even a 0.5ºC rise beyond 1.5ºC to 2ºC – the upper limit of warming agreed to by nations in the Paris Climate Agreement of 2016 – would dramatically increase the risk of floods, droughts, heatwaves, food insecurity and deterioration of livelihoods for millions of people around the world. In order to limit temperature rises to 1.5ºC, the report states that CO2 emissions would have to decline by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero by 2050.

In response to the IPCC’s warnings, cities and local authorities have taken steps to dramatically increase their efforts to combat climate change, with Bristol becoming the first UK city to declare a climate emergency in November following a motion proposed by Green Party councillor Carla Denyer, bringing the city’s carbon neutrality targets forward 20 years to 2030. More than 11 UK councils have since followed suit, including the London Assembly, which passed a motion proposed by Green Party Assembly Member Caroline Russell in December.

‘Huge government investment’ needed

Responding to the release of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions estimates, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas called for significant government investment to drive the transition to a green economy. She said: "It's shocking that emissions from agriculture and waste actually increased in 2017 and transport's contribution has inched down by just two per cent since 1990.

"With this government's huge subsidies for fossil fuels, relentless building of new roads and runways, slashing of support for clean energy and sordid love affair with the car industry, it's incredible that overall emissions fell at all.

"With the world's top scientists warning we have just 11 years to keep temperature rises below 1.5 degrees, ministers should be redesigning our whole economy to achieve the dramatic drops in emissions we need. That means launching a Green New Deal – huge government investment to guarantee a green job to everyone who wants one and accelerate the transition to clean energy, affordable and reliable public transport and a thriving natural world."