Why are UK greenhouse gas emissions falling?

Good news from the UK’s energy department today. Greenhouse gas emissions fell by 8.7 per cent in 2009, according to final official figures.

The FT reports:

The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped 8.7 per cent in 2009 as the recession took its toll on fuel and electricity consumption across the economy.

The role of the recession in curbing emissions was also played up by the energy secretary Chris Huhne (a cynic might suggest this was because in 2009, Labour was still in power). He said:

Yes, emissions were down in 2009 but so was the economy so this is no time for back slapping.

The pessimism was shared by Friends of the Earth. Their head of climate, Mike Childs, said:

The recession may have led to a fall in UK greenhouse gases in 2009, but our economy remains heavily addicted to fossil fuels – and early estimates suggest that emissions grew again last year.

But there is at least one voice of optimism amid the gloom. David Symons, director at WSP Environment & Energy, thinks there are long-term structural changes that underpin the fall. He points out that the Climate Change Committee estimated that the recession would trigger a fall of between 3 and 7 per cent, meaning the UK overshot by some way:

It’s encouraging. there are some steps and measures that are beginning to take effect.

Symons points particularly to improvements in energy efficiency, lower-carbon power sources and a shift towards electric and hybrid vehicles.

But is he right? If Mike Childs and Friends of the Earth are right and emissions did grow last year, Symons’ analysis may look like misplaced optimism. The important figure to look for is the first time there is a drop in emissions during a year of growth. That will be significant.

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