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California and the UK both report significant drops in their greenhouse gas emissions, due in large part to large decreases in the amount of coal used to generate electricity. That's the good news. Now the hard work begins.

Clean Power

Renewables Push California Carbon Emissions Below 1990 Levels. UK Emissions Fall Even Further.

California and the UK both report significant drops in their greenhouse gas emissions, due in large part to large decreases in the amount of coal used to generate electricity. That’s the good news. Now the hard work begins.

California Reaches GHG Reduction Goal 4 Years Early

We know that cutting carbon emissions alone won’t solve our planet’s overheating problem, but putting fewer carbon emissions into the atmosphere is a good way to begin addressing the issue. (Leaving fossil fuels in the ground is another.) In its latest report, the California Air Resources Board says the state hit its carbon reduction target for 2020 four years ahead of schedule. Below is part of that report, edited to remove mind numbing bureaucrateze. The numbers are from 2016, the latest year for which complete data is available.

California’s GHG emissions have followed a declining trend since 2007. In 2016, emissions from routine emitting activities statewide were 429 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) or 12 MMTCO2e lower than 2015 levels, representing an overall decrease of 13% since peak levels in 2004 and 2 MMTCO2e below the 1990 level and the state’s 2020 GHG target. During the 2000 to 2016 period, per capita GHG emissions in California have continued to drop from a peak in 2001 of 14.0 metric tons per person to 10.8 metric tons per person in 2016, a 23% decrease. Overall trends in the inventory also demonstrate that the carbon intensity of California’s economy (the amount of carbon pollution per million dollars of gross domestic product is declining, representing a 38% decline since the 2001 peak, while the state’s GDP has grown 41% during this period. In 2016, GDP grew 3% while the emissions per GDP declined by 6% compared to 2015.

California GHG emissions by sectorThe takeaway is that carbon emissions in California are now equivalent to what they were in 1990, a time when, had the world taken the warnings about climate change seriously, it might have had a chance of controlling global warming effectively. California’s next GHG goal is to reduce emission to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. It is important to note the state’s economic activity rose by more than 40% during the time these reductions were occurring.

CARB attributes much of the progress made in lowering carbon emissions to the increase in renewable energy in the state. Renewables now contribute about 13% of the state’s electricity while generation from coal-fired plants has decreased markedly. But the Board also credits a surge in hydroelectric energy during 2015 and 2016 when abundant rainfall swelled the state’s reservoirs. Since then, there has been less rainfall to power hydro stations.

Taking the next step in GHG reductions will be tough. According to PV Magazine, “For California to make further progress in emission reductions, it will not be enough to only deploy renewable energy. Nearly 2/3 of the state’s emissions currently come from the transportation and industrial sectors, and in particular it will be key to electrify transportation and/or implement transit, housing and land use policies that provide alternatives to the lengthy automobile commutes that are the norm in many of the state’s urban areas.” So now is when the hard work begins.

GHG Reductions In The UK

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Carbon Brief reports greenhouse gas emissions are already 38% below 1990 levels (the target California has set for 2030) and are now equal to emissions not seen in that country since Queen Victoria sat on the throne. It says the decrease is attributable to a sharp drop in the amount of coal used to generate electricity, along with an increase in renewables. Its calculations are based on the latest report from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

UK carbon emissions“While the fall in coal use in 2017 was much smaller than that in 2016, it is clear that the large decline in coal use in recent years was not a temporary phenomenon. Coal now accounts for only 5.3% of total primary energy consumed in the UK, down from 22% in 1995. The UK government has pledged to close all coal-fired power stations by 2025,” reports Carbon Brief.

In an addendum to its reporting, Carbon Brief noted, “This article focuses on CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and uses an approach similar to that employed by BEIS in calculating official UK CO2 emissions. As such, it ignores the emissions associated with biomass energy, which are disputed. Woody biomass has replaced roughly a sixth of the coal that has been eliminated in the UK since 2012.”

Coal Is The Culprit

Coal can truly be said to be the energy source that made the Industrial Revolution possible. At one time, it allowed the British Navy to be the fiercest fighting force afloat. But the curtain falls and time passes on all things. The good news on emissions from California and the UK is mostly attributable to a sharp decrease in recent years in the use of coal to make electricity.

As PV Magazine suggests, further reductions in emissions may be harder to achieve. But as more evidence of the destruction caused by higher average global temperatures becomes available on almost a daily basis, the impetus to address the problem of greenhouse gas emissions grows stronger as well. The world is moving in the right direction. Progress to date has been quite remarkable. But now we need to double down and pick up the pace. The world is running out of time.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.


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