Damning statistics

11th April 2013

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Paul Suff reflects on what the latest statistics on the UK's carbon footprint and energy production reveal about how far away the reality of a low-carbon economy is

Preliminary figures from Decc show that UK greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions were 3.5% higher in 2012 than in 2011, and CO2 emissions, which account for more than 80% of the country’s overall GHG output, were 4.5% higher.

Coal is largely responsible for the increase. The latest energy statistics, also from Decc, reveal that electricity generators, attracted by its low price, simply burned more coal than gas. Total demand for coal in 2012 was 64 million tonnes, more than 24% up on 2011 levels, while consumption by power companies was 31% higher.

The rises recorded in 2012 reverse a long-term trend that has seen UK emissions fall almost every year since 1990 – the baseline for major GHGs like CO2. So, are the 2012 figures just another of the occasional blips experienced over the past two decades as UK edges towards a low-carbon economy?

The answer to that question is probably yes, with many of the UK’s older coal-fired power stations, which are due to close by 2016, taking advantage of cheap fuel – the price they paid for coal in 2012 was 17% down on 2011 levels.

But whether the increase in emissions is a temporary deviation or not is neither here nor there when it comes to climate change. The CO2 pumped into the atmosphere last year will remain there for many years and affect the climate over the next few decades and beyond, leading to extreme weather events, including floods, droughts and storms, occurring more frequently.

The government’s outgoing chief scientific officer, John Beddington, recently told the BBC that weather patterns over the “next 20 or 30 years are going to be determined by what’s up there now”.

Decc’s GHG data refer only to emissions produced in the UK, not the emissions from all the goods and services we consume in the UK. Like most major developed countries, the UK is a net importer of embodied carbon emissions.

The latest figures from the office for national statistics (ONS) suggest that such emissions may also be rising. ONS calculates that the UK deficit on traded goods – transactions in general merchandise; goods for processing and those procured in ports by carriers; repairs on goods; and non-monetary gold – in 2012 was £106.3 billion, the highest on record.

Mark Twain famously said: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Unfortunately, the latest data on emissions, energy consumption and the trade deficit are not falsehoods and reveal just how far we still need to go to decarbonise the UK economy.

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