The Earth is facing a climate crisis, as the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity and power our cars overloads the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, causing a dangerous atmospheric imbalance that’s raising global temperatures.
A report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released earlier this month cautioned that the planet has just 12 years to dramatically curb greenhouse gas emissions, by overhauling our energy systems and economies and likely, our societies and political systems. Even a half degree rise beyond that would cause catastrophic sea level rises, droughts, heat, hunger, and poverty, spelling disaster for our species.
UK’s Commitment to Climate Change Mitigation
The UK government has committed to reducing carbon emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050, a process that will involve overhauling our energy supply, which is responsible for 25% of greenhouse emissions in the country, just behind transport (26% of all emissions). But it may be too little too late. The government has already said it is reviewing these targets in light of the IPCC report and in the spring began consulting on a net-zero carbon emissions target for 2050.
But despite these dire prognoses and the enormity of the task facing us as a species, there’s reason to be optimistic. The UK has already managed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 43% on 1990 levels, with much of the reduction coming from a 57% decline in emissions from energy generation. This is in part thanks to several providers offering you the chance to have a 100% renewable domestic energy supply.
Reduction in Coal Usage
The use of coal has plunged nearly overnight in the UK. In 2012, 42% of the UK’s electricity demand was met by coal. Just six years later, in the second quarter of 2018, that figure had fallen to just 1.6%. Emissions from coal-fired power stations fell from 129 million tonnes of CO2 to just 19 million tonnes over the same period.
A coal-free Britain is already on the horizon. In April 2017, the UK logged its first coal-free day since the Industrial Revolution; this past April we extended the run to 76 consecutive hours. In fact, in the second quarter of 2018, all the UK’s coal power stations were offline for a total of 812 hours, or 37% of the time. That’s more coal free hours than were recorded in 2016 and 2017 combined and in just three months.
When the UK does rely on coal power, it’s primarily to balance supplies and to meet demand overnight and during cold snaps, such as during the Beast from the East storm in March. The UK is so certain that coal is a technology of the past, that the government has plans to mothball all seven remaining coal-fired power stations by 2025.
Share of Renewables in Energy Supply
The decline in coal has been matched by an explosion in renewable energy, particularly in wind power. In the second quarter of 2018, renewables generated 31.7% of the UK’s electricity, up from under 9% in 2011. Of those, wind power produced 13.3% of all electricity (7.1% from onshore turbines farms and 6.2% from offshore wind farms), biomass energy contributed another 11% of the UK’s electricity, solar generated 6% and hydro power made up the rest of renewables’ pie share.
The UK’s total installed renewables capacity has exploded, hitting 42.2GW in the second quarter of 2018, up from under 10GW in 2010. That includes 13.7GW of onshore wind capacity and 7.8GW of offshore wind capacity—a figure which will get a boost with the opening in September of the world’s largest wind farm, the Walney Extension, off the coast of Cumbria, itself with a capacity of nearly 0.7GW. Solar panels contributed another 13GW of renewable capacity, and installed plant biomass infrastructure reaching 3.3GW.
However, while renewables are transforming electricity generation in the UK, our energy system consists of more than simply electricity. We also have to account for natural gas and the use of fuel in transport, and renewables have made fewer in roads in those sectors.
The UK is meeting just 9.3% of its total energy needs from renewable sources, short of the 15% it has earmarked for 2020 and far behind its peers in the EU, where Sweden is already running on 53.8% renewable energy.
Emissions are dropping overall in the UK, largely due to an ongoing revolution in electricity generation and a decisive move away from coal. But these reductions have concealed stagnant and even increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions from other sectors, including transport and agriculture.
Our transition to a sustainable economy has begun but will require more than wind farms and the shuttering of coal-fired power stations. It must encompass electric vehicles, transformed industries, and ultimately changing attitudes toward energy and the environment and our responsibility toward it.