The good news is that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are falling generally across the UK and Ireland.  The bad news is that the drop has less to do with implementation of progressive governmental climate change policies or interventions and more to do with the lowering of business and industrial activities resulting from the world-wide recession.  It is an economic disaster, not actions taken directly to lower GHG emissions, that has offered a cold hand to help reduce emissions.  In China, where the economy has hardly missed a beat, GHG emissions remain on an upward swing.

The UK experience is fully explored in a recent report by the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC).  The CCC is an independent body established under the Climate Change Act (2008) to advise the UK Government on setting and meeting carbon budgets and on preparing for the impacts of climate change in the UK. The CCC has a statutory duty to provide regular reports to Parliament on the progress that is being made to both tackle and prepare for climate change.

The Committee’s initial advice in December 2008 for the first carbon budget was that there would be about 3% annual economic growth that would lead to increased GHG emissions to be offset by “firm and funded” policies, including voluntary agreements for increased fuel efficiency for new cars, biofuels, and the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target in the sectors not included in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), including heat, transport, and non-CO2.  In its first report to Parliament, the Committee noted that GHG emissions had fallen only slightly in the period of 2003-2007, both for the economy as a whole and for key sectors.  In this second report on progress, the impacts from the recession dominate the discussion.

Impacts from recession, generally

In contrast to the minimal drop in 2003-2007, of about 0.6% annually, the overall GHG emissions in the UK fell 1.9% in 2008 and 8.6% in 2009.  The reductions in CO2 were 9.7% while the non-CO2 emissions fell by 1.9%.   Over the two-year period, these cuts were more than the 2-3% annual cut called for in the first report as being necessary to meet the UK carbon budget by 2020.  Unfortunately, the cuts were largely the result of factors unrelated to government policies or interventions.

Some of the factors that did account for the cuts included a fall of 5% in the gross domestic product (GDP), with manufacturing output down by 10%, and a rise in residential and industrial fuel prices (not including transport) with residential gas prices up by 12%.

The Committee suggests that some of the reductions from the recession may be permanent, because of closure of older more polluting factories and greater interest in fuel-efficient cars, but with a recovery there will be increased pressure on GHG emissions growth.   The Committee explored the conditions existing in and the consequences for various sectors of the economy.

Power Sector

The power sector accounts for 31% of total CO2 and 26% of GHG emissions.  Between 1990 and 1999 emissions fell by 28% because of a “dash for gas” but then rose by 9% between 2000 and 2008 because of rising electricity demand.  In 2009, the emissions from this sector fell by 13.1% as result of reductions in demand and carbon intensity.  The reduction in carbon intensity flowed from an increase in nuclear generation (two plants that had outages returned to operation), less coal-fired generation (taken up by nuclear power), and a small increase in generation from renewable energy sources (now at 7.3% of total energy generation).

The Committee recommends significant decarbonisation of the power sector by 2030 through renewable sources, along with electrification of heat and transport.  The alternative strategy of heavy investment in gas-fired facilities leaves the UK vulnerable to risks of costly or failed carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology and high gas prices. See Report on “Geologic Sequestration of Carbon Dioxide” and iePEDIA entry for “Carbon Capture and Storage” in irish environment.

Development of wind energy seems in line with expectations although the expectations were low.  Slow planning approval and difficulty in getting equipment continue to create delays.  Calls for short cuts to planning requirements raise deep concerns among many environmentalists about adequate consideration of environmental protection and wishes of local communities.

Development of nuclear power and CCS remain behind wind and tidal projects, as does work on making the energy market more conducive to low-carbon generation.  A low and uncertain price for carbon is a major problem in these areas.

In NI, the devolved administration set a target of 12% of electricity to come from indigenous renewable sources by 2012, and 40% by 2020.  By December 2009, about 8.5% of electricity came from renewables so that the target of 12% by 2020 looks achievable.  For the future, NI plans on expanding offshore renewable energy with an estimated 600 MW of offshore wind and 300 MW of tidal power by 2020.  Already there is an experimental turbine in Strangford Lough and a prototype tidal energy converter that has delivered 800 MWh into the grid, the world’s first commercial scale project to do so.

The CCC notes that in Northern Ireland the Assembly Committee on the Environment reported in November 2009 on its inquiry into climate change, and that the Assembly Committee accepted that NI needed to make a fair and proportionate contribution to the UK GHG emission targets and to develop a strategy to address both mitigation and adaptation.  See “Report” on “Inquiry into Climate Change – NI Assembly Committee for the Environment” in irish environment.  The CCC also noted that in May 2010 the NI Executive accepted a proposal by the Minister for the Environment to establish a Cross Departmental Working Group on GHG emissions that will produce a mitigation programme by December 2010.

Buildings and Industry


Buildings and industry account for about two-thirds of total CO2 emissions in the UK with residential emissions representing 41% of that 2/3, industry 38%, commercial 15% and public sector 6%.

Energy efficiency measures remain an inexpensive but elusive way to reduce energy demand.  In the existing residential building sector, some progress was shown on replacing boilers and insulating lofts and cavity walls, but there was little improvement in solid wall insulation and purchases of energy-efficient appliances.  And any improvement likely resulted from the recession.  While home heating is often unaffected by price and income, because it is a basic necessity, there was some evidence of people reducing energy consumption because of the recession and high fuel prices in 2009.

While there are opportunities within the public sector to lead the way by example with energy efficiency measures, there was little exemplary behavior in 2008-2009 and total CO2 emissions from this sector remained constant.  Emissions from the commercial building sector were flat before the recession and fell in 2009, largely because of the recession.

The CCC report details what government programs are available to support further improvements.  With new home construction there are easier ways of incorporating energy efficiency measures and there is a commitment that all new homes in England will be zero carbon by 2016, with work to be done on defining “zero carbon.”   The government’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is designed to encourage adoption of renewable heat technologies, including heat pumps and biomass boilers.

In NI, a revised Sustainable Energy Programme was started in April 2010 with a key focus on alleviating fuel poverty.  In NI, new social housing is required to meet a code of sustainable homes, new build homes receive rate relief for being low or zero carbon, the public sector estate must be carbon neutral by 2015, and all new public sector buildings have to be zero carbon by 2018.   While NI has some success with increasing renewables, there has been less progress on energy efficiency and total carbon emission reductions.

The RHI does not apply to NI but the NI Draft Strategic Energy Framework, due for approval in 2010, proposes a 10% renewable heat target for 2020 while it also recognizes that financial support must be found to meet such a target.


As a result of fuel switching and industry restructuring, industrial emissions fell significantly between 1990 and 2008.  Further significant reductions were evident in 2009.  Because the EU ETS has a large impact on industry the Committee acknowledged that it is difficult to separate impacts from the ETS and the recession, nevertheless, the conclusion was that the recession played a “key role” in the recent reductions.

The major vehicles driving industrial emission reductions are the Climate Change Agreements (CCA) instituted along with the Climate Change Levy, a tax on energy delivered to non-domestic users.  The CCAs provide certain energy intensive sectors with an 80% discount on the Levy in exchange for improved energy efficiency or emission reductions.  The discount is scheduled to be reduced to 65%.


Surface transport emissions (not including aviation or shipping) account for 22% of total UK CO2 and 18% of GHG emissions.  Cars account for 62% of the road transport emissions, vans 13% and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) 20% with 5% from buses, mopeds and motorcycles.

Surface transport emissions grew by over 10% between 1990 and 2007.  In this period, there were reductions attributable to technological improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency but these were offset by increased miles travelled.  Then in 2008-2009, emissions from cars fell 5.8% as result of improved fuel efficiency and reduced car miles.  Importantly, carbon intensity of new cars dropped from 158 g/km in 2008 to about 149 g/km in 2009 and the committee attributes this drop to a change in car purchase behavior and increased oil prices, which were reinforced by various policies, including the car scrappage scheme, vehicle excise duty (VED) (road tax) differentiation, fuel duty and company car tax.

To reinforce the reduction in car miles, especially as the recession eases, the Committee recommends further implementation of the Smarter Choices initiative (e.g., promoting working from home, car pooling, use of public transport), eco-driving (e.g., braking and accelerating gently, keeping tyres at correct pressure) and integrating land use and transport policies, for instance by promoting new residential developments close to workplaces or public transport.  As success with developing an electric car market has been minimal, financial support is necessary for purchase of electric cars and investment in a national electric vehicle charging network if the goal of 1.7 million electric and plug-in hybrid cars by 2020 is to be met.

Emissions from vans, HGVs, buses and trains have shown a steady increase over the last twenty years interrupted only by the recession.

Aviation emissions also fell in 2008 and 2009, due to the recession, but demand and emissions are expected to grow as the economy recovers.  In contrast, GHG emissions from shipping rose 10% in 2008.  Reaching an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 will be very difficult without some control over emissions from aviation and shipping.

In NI, the Department for Regional Development has established a Transportation Policy Division to develop sustainable transport and this work will be coordinated with the current review of the Regional Transport Strategy which is expected to be submitted for public consultation in 2010.

The lottery question is whether people will continue to buy fuel-efficient, low-carbon emitting cars whenever economic prosperity returns, assuming it does, or whether we’ll see a reenactment of the conspicuous consumption that defined the Celtic Tiger regime. The Committee expects at the least that we will see an increase in miles driven as GDP starts to grow again. To offset any inclination to return to gas guzzlers and more driving, further differentiation in the vehicle excise and fuel duties, as examples, could be implemented.  See the Podcast interview with Frank Convery in irish environment on the need to preserve such gains through pricing mechanisms.  At several points in its report, the Committee recommends that the government implement the Green New Deal to provide further support for a decarbonised economy.  See entry for “Green New Deal” in iePEDIA section of irish environment.


Non-CO2 emissions from agriculture have fallen by about 20% since 1990, including a 1% drop in 2008.  These savings result from a reduced use of fertiliser and fewer livestock, based in part on reforms of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that decoupled farm support payments from number of animals.  The reduced use of fertilizer by farmers is having a knock-on effect as it has reduced the upstream manufacturing of fertilizer, a source of high CO2 emissions.  The GHGs of concern remain nitrous oxide (53% of emissions) and methane (38%); the former occurring naturally in soil but enhanced by agricultural practices, the latter arising from enteric fermentation from the digestive systems of cattle and sheep and from manures.

The Committee acknowledges that the agriculture sector carries its own unique complexity, in particular the difficulty in measuring farm-level emissions. One strong recommendation is the need to more clearly identify current farming practices, as well as the emissions attributable to these practices and what could be gained by improved practices.

Despite the reductions, the Committee concludes, based on a study commissioned to the Scottish Agricultural College, that further savings in GHG emissions can be garnered from the agricultural sector through more efficient fertilizer application, productivity and dietary measures to reduce enteric fermentation, and installation of on-farm or centralized anaerobic digestion plants to handle manures.

Agriculture is administered largely through the devolved governments.  While Scotland and Wales have proposed targets for reducing agricultural emissions, and are developing policies to reach those targets, NI lags far behind and has not yet even set a target.  NI seems more comfortable with the historic “light-touch” approach to agricultural emissions based on encouragement through advisory services.  The Committee suggests that farmers may require grants and other financial incentives to act, rather than just encouragement or knowledge transfer, and that the farming community experience with the EU CAP reinforces this need for financial incentives before behavior is changed.


While some may feel complacent that we have reduced GHG emissions without requiring any sacrifice imposed by the government, the Committee argues that it is necessary to take advantage of these unintended benefits if the UK hopes to meet its targets by 2020.  The Committee strongly recommends that the government “outperform the first budget and that outperformance should not be banked through to the next budget period.”  Even with these unintended cuts, if there is no stepped up effort, the carbon budgets set for the near future will not be met.  The level of renewable electricity generation, sales of electric vehicles, and solid wall insulation in homes are all well below what is required for the UK to meet its carbon budget by 2020.

Update:  posted after initial publication on 01 Sept 2010

The European Environment Agency recently reported a similar result across the EU where GHG emissions decreased by 6.9% in 2009 compared to 2008.  As a result the EU-15 stands 12.9% below the 1990 base-year level, exceeding for the first time its commitment to an 8% reduction.   While the decrease is largely attributed to the economic recession, there was a 8.3% rise in renewable energy use that contributed to the reduction in GHG emissions in this period.

“Recession accelerates the decline in EU greenhouse gas emissions” (10 Sept 2010)


UK Committee on Climate Change, Meeting Carbon Budgets – ensuring a low-carbon recovery, 2nd Progress Report to Parliament, 30 June 2010.

Thomas Legge and Sue Scott, Policy Options to Reduce Ireland’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions, The Economic and Social Research Institute (July 2009).

“China’s Energy Use Threatens Goals on Warming,” New York Times (6 May 2010),

“Global carbon emissions steady for first time since 1992,” Guardian (1 July 2010),

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