Bad news piles up on CO2 emissions

Carbon dioxide emissions in 2004 were just 4.2% below 1990 levels, according to provisional data released in late March.1 Emissions have increased in four of the last five years - a serious embarrassment to the Government which raises the stakes for its review of policies under the climate change programme.

The first piece of bad news came in late March with the publication of finalised emission figures for 2003.

A year ago, provisional data suggested that CO2 emissions in 2003 were 7.5% below 1990 levels - leaving the Government badly off course for its target to cut emissions by 20% by 2010 (ENDS Report 351, pp 11-12 ).

The final figures are even less encouraging, showing that CO2 emissions in 2003 were just 5.6% below 1990 levels. The main reason for the change is that the Department of Trade and Industry has revised its emission factors for coal and gas, a move which also changes data for earlier years (ENDS Report 358, p 25 ).

The Environment Department (DEFRA) attempted to spin its way out of the embarrassment. Its press release stressed that emissions of all greenhouse gases have fallen since 1990 and 1997, and down-played the "disappointing" figures on CO2.

Ten days later, the Government released provisional figures for 2004 which showed a further rise of 1.5% in CO2 emissions. Emissions were just 4.2% down from 1990 levels - and considerably higher than when Labour came to power in 1997 (see table).

Emissions of the "basket" of greenhouse gases also increased in 2004. Until now, the assumption has been that the UK will have no trouble in meeting its target under the Kyoto Protocol of a 12.5% reduction by 2010. The latest data suggest that this should not be taken for granted.

DEFRA maintains that "expectations on long-term fuel price relativities and the increased impact of measures in the climate change programme mean that CO2 emissions should eventually return to their downward path." It expects current policies to deliver a 13% fall in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels by 2010, and a 20% reduction in the basket of greenhouse gases - and is looking to the current review of the climate change programme to deliver further reductions (ENDS Report 359, pp 48-49 ).

The main reason for the increase in CO2 emissions in 2004 was a significant rise in releases from industry and transport:

  • Industry: Industrial energy consumption rose steeply fuelled partly by the continued recovery in the steel sector. Direct emissions from industry rose by 4.5% to 39mtC (million tonnes of carbon) - and now stand 1% above 1990 levels.

    The trend is reinforced by a strong 2.5% growth in industrial electricity use. The data contrast with the Confederation of British Industry’s recent complaint that employers "are being asked to carry the can alone for the climate change problem."

  • Transport: Transport emissions, which plateaued between 1996 and 2002, rose by 2.5% in 2004 and now stand at 10% above 1990 levels. The increase reflects the growth in traffic - notably freight. However, it will also fuel concerns about car manufacturers’ slow progress under an EU-wide voluntary agreement on fuel efficiency of new vehicles (see p 10 ).

  • Electricity generation: Emissions from this sector fell back to 47mtC, a 1.5% drop from the high levels in 2003. Even so, power station emissions in both 2003 and 2004 were higher than in any year since 1992, when the "dash for gas" started in earnest.

    The drop in emissions from the power sector reflected a 5% drop in coal burn and a return to more normal levels of electricity imports. These factors were partly offset by a 2% increase in total electricity demand, a 10% drop in nuclear output as a result of unplanned outages and record levels of gas use. Gas-fired stations accounted for 41% of electricity supply, compared to 32.7% for coal and 19.1% for nuclear.

  • Households: Direct CO2 emissions from households increased by 2% in 2004, and have risen by 12.5% since 1990. The long-term rise mirrors the increase in the number of households.

  • Other air pollutants: DEFRA has also published final figures for emissions of other air pollutants in 2003. Releases of almost all the major pollutants continued the steady decline which has been under way for several years.

    The UK has already beaten a 2010 target for emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) set by the 2001 EU Directive on national emissions ceilings (see table). Emissions of ammonia also look set to comply with the Directive’s limit - although releases from agriculture are subject to considerable uncertainty and are attracting renewed attention from policymakers (ENDS Report 362, p 11 ).

    However, progress towards the Directive’s limit on NOx emissions was stalled by an 11% rise in emissions from large combustion plant, suggesting that tougher abatement policies may be needed to ensure compliance. The high coal burn in 2003 meant that the drop in SO2 emissions was also modest, but the Government is confident that planned flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) retrofits will ensure compliance with the Directive.

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