The Covid-19 lockdown led to substantially lower business and transport emissions. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images The Covid-19 lockdown led to substantially lower business and transport emissions. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Pandemic lockdown slashed carbon emissions

The UK’s greenhouse gas output fell by almost nine percent last year as coronavirus lockdown measures shut down large parts of the economy, according to provisional statistics released yesterday.

An estimated 326.1 million tonnes of CO2 were released over 2020, an 8.9% reduction year-on-year that can be largely ascribed to the Covid-19 lockdown period. Total territorial emissions of greenhouse gases (excluding international shipping and aviation) fell by 10.7% to the equivalent of 414.1Mt, almost half the amount of the 1990 baseline.

The provisional figures represent the largest proportional fall in emissions since records began to be kept in 1990, slightly more than the 8.6% reduction caused by the Great Recession in 2009. Final data will be provided in February next year.

Accordingly, final figures for 2019 have also been published, establishing that 454.8MtCO2e was released, down from 2018 figure of 468.1 the year before.

The most dramatic reduction of 2020 was seen during the second quarter of the year, due a combination of warmer weather reducing the need for heating, and plummeting transport and business emissions during the first lockdown. Emissions were 26.4% lower than the same period the year before.

Transport emissions fell from 28.4MTCO2e in the first quarter down to only 17.2 MTCO2e, with an overall fall of 19.6% over the year. The impact of the pandemic was still seen in the last quarter of 2020, when they rose somewhat to 26.4 MTCO2e. But it still left transport as the UK’s largest contributor to climate change.

Quarterly emissions from transport had been almost constant for the past decade, at around 31MTCO2e.

With so many firms forced to halt their activities, business emissions followed a similar trajectory, falling from 18.7MtCO2e in the first quarter to only 13MtCO2e in the second and remaining depressed for the rest of the year.

The fall in economic activity, combined with the steady decarbonisation of British electricity generation, led in turn to an 11.9% reduction in emissions from the power sector. Coal accounted for only 2.6% of the fuel used for electricity generation last year, compared to almost two thirds in 1990, while nuclear and renewables accounted for 56.3%.

With more people remaining at home, residential emissions were the only sector to see an increase, rising by 1.8% due to more gas being used for heating and cooking. The rise would have been substantially greater, around 6.7%, had it not been for warm weather.

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