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13 Mar 2023

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UK Coal Consumption Drops 15%, Reaches 18th-Century Levels

Posted with permission from ESG Impact Zone. Original article with graphics is available.

by Simon Evans

Emissions from coal and gas fell in 2022, due to strong growth in clean energy, above-average temperatures and record-high fossil fuel prices suppressing demand.

The 15% reduction in coal use means UK demand for the fuel is now the lowest it has been for 266 years. The last time coal demand was this low was in 1757, when George II was king.

Emissions from oil increased, as road traffic returned to pre-Covid levels and air traffic doubled from a year earlier. However, this was outweighed by the reductions from coal and gas.

UK emissions have now fallen in nine of the past 10 years, even as the economy has grown. The drop in 2022 puts UK emissions 49% below 1990 levels, while the economy has grown 75% over the same period.

Carbon Brief’s analysis, based on preliminary government energy data, shows UK emissions fell by 14m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) in 2022. Emissions will need to fall by a similar amount every year – for the next three decades – to reach net-zero by 2050.

The analysis also shows that emissions would have increased in 2022, if temperatures had not been 0.9C above average and without strong growth from wind and solar energy.

This means only a fraction of last year’s emissions cuts came from deliberate action. Moreover, with coal use already at such low levels, the UK will need to address emissions from buildings, transport, industry and agriculture if it is to make further progress towards its net-zero target.

Covid closure

The coronavirus pandemic triggered record reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and globally in 2020. An inevitable rebound followed, as economies reopened from lockdowns.

This rebound continued in 2022, as higher road and air traffic helped push global emissions to a new record.

In the UK, however, emissions fell by 3.4%, according to Carbon Brief’s new analysis. This drop ended the UK’s post-Covid emissions rebound, as shown in the chart below.

After having fallen by 9.8% in 2020 during the height of Covid, emissions had risen by 5.0% in 2021. Emissions in 2022, at an estimated 412MtCO2e, were slightly higher than in 2020 (406MtCO2e), which remains the lowest in the modern era.

Greenhouse gas emissions within UK borders have now fallen in nine of the past 10 years. Indeed, UK emissions have only risen year-on-year seven times since 1990.

In 2022, rising UK demand for transport fuel was more than offset by declines in coal and gas.

Classical coal

The UK’s coal demand fell by another 15% in 2022 to just 6.2m tonnes. This is the lowest level since 1757, according to Carbon Brief analysis of historical data.

That year in the UK, George II was king, William Cavendish was prime minister and the industrial revolution had not yet begun. A year earlier, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had been born in Austria.

In the years that followed, UK coal use climbed rapidly as industrialisation took off. Annual demand for the fuel rocketed to 60Mt by 1850 and peaked at 221Mt in 1956.

This is shown in the chart below, which combines data covering 1853 onwards from the UK government with estimates for earlier years published by historian Paul Warde.

(The UK’s historical coal use is the main reason it remains the eighth-largest contributor to current warming. Its contribution is particularly notable given its modest population.)

Coal’s decline in the UK has been even more precipitous than its ascent. It peaked in 1956, when the Clean Air Act was passed in response to London’s “Great Smog”. Coal use halved to around 120Mt by the 1970s and then halved again to around 60Mt at the turn of the century.

After remaining at a similar level until 2012, UK coal use has now fallen 90% in the past decade. This is mostly due to the near-phaseout of coal power, which is down 96% over the same period.

Last year, there had been fears of a coal “comeback” or a “return to coal” in the face of the global energy crisis. In the event, use of the fuel to generate electricity fell by 15% in 2022.

Electricity system operator National Grid had paid an estimated £386m to keep old coal plants open and stocked with coal, in case electricity supplies were tight. But the plants never ran.

There are several reasons why there was no need for a return to coal power in 2022.

First, UK electricity use fell by 3.8% in 2022 to its lowest level in around 40 years.

This reduction was largely due to a 9.6% drop in demand from homes. People spent more time away from home as Covid restrictions ended, with shops and offices seeing a corresponding increase in electricity use. Meanwhile, warmer temperatures reduced the need for heat, including from electricity. And historically high energy bills dampened demand.

Second, wind power climbed to a new record high in 2022, rising 25% thanks to increased capacity and a rebound from decade-low windspeeds in 2021. There were also smaller increases in generation from hydro, solar, nuclear and gas.

The combination of lower demand and higher supply from other fuels enabled the UK to become a net electricity exporter for the first time since 1978, at the same time as cutting coal power.

In addition to coal power, there have also been significant declines in coal use by the UK steel industry. Demand for coking coal to run blast furnaces fell 19% in 2022, as UK steel production fell by 16% to its lowest level since 1932, according to the International Steel Statistics Bureau.

(In 2022, the UK government approved the country’s first new coking coal mine for 30 years in Cumbria, northwest England. The vast majority of its output will be exported.)

Global steel production also fell in 2022, but only by 4%, according to the World Steel Association (WSA). UK output fell faster than many other European countries, the WSA figures show. It faced “subdued” demand, particularly from UK carmakers, as well as higher exposure to record gas prices, due to the UK’s reliance on the fuel to make electricity.

Traffic returns

Energy use from oil in the UK grew in 2022, but remains below pre-pandemic levels. Petrol was up 8% and diesel 7%, as road traffic returned to pre-Covid levels, shown in the figure below left.

(Within this total, car traffic remains 7% below pre-pandemic levels. Movements of vans and trucks now exceed pre-Covid levels by 12% and 4%, respectively.)

Despite having doubled year-on-year in 2022, UK air traffic remains 20% below 2019 levels, shown in the chart below right. (Flight volumes remain somewhat depressed globally.)

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