Carbon Emissions In The U.K. Are Now As Low As They Were In 1894

The death of the coal industry has brought the country’s pollution levels back to where they were before cars went into mass production.

Carbon Emissions In The U.K. Are Now As Low As They Were In 1894
[Photo: Epitavi/iStock] [Photo: Epitavi/iStock]

In 2016, for the first time, wind farms in the U.K. generated more electricity than coal. As the coal industry continued its collapse–demand for coal dropped by 52% compared to the year before–so did the country’s emissions on the whole.


U.K. carbon emissions are now as low as they were in 1894, the same year that the first car went into mass production, according to a new analysis from Carbon Brief, a U.K.-based website that covers climate science and energy policy. Emissions also briefly dropped to similar levels during the coal miners’ strikes in the 1920s, but in that case, the change was temporary.

Just a decade ago, the coal industry emitted 137 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. In 2016, that number dropped to 37 million tons. Emissions from gas and oil did increase, but because of the outsized impact of coal pollution, the country’s emissions as a whole went down. Overall, emissions dropped 6% in a year.

[Photo: scalatore1959/iStock]

“The way emissions have fallen in the last two or three years has probably surprised a lot of people,” Simon Evans, policy editor for Carbon Brief, tells Co.Exist. “Essentially, coal use for electricity generation has dropped through the floor–and that’s due to a number of factors which aren’t really very predictable.”

Cheaper gas drove part of the change, along with the growth of renewable energy. The drop in demand for energy also played a role. The U.K.’s carbon tax–one predictable factor–also played a large role.

Emissions are now an estimated 36% lower than they were in 1990. The U.K. has a goal of reducing 1990 emission levels by 35% by 2020. Because of complicated accounting, it’s not clear yet if that goal has actually been met, but the findings are a promising sign.

All of this is further proof that as an economy grows, emissions don’t have to. “In the time since 1894, the U.K. economy has grown 12-fold,” says Evans.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.