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CO2 emissions at lowest level in 40 years

UK emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, have plunged to their lowest levels since records began more than 40 years ago, according to the energy and climate change department.

One of the biggest reasons for the fall to just 456m tonnes last year was greater use of nuclear power, according to the data – released on the same day two German companies announced they were dropping plans to build reactors in the UK.

A warmer winter in 2011, especially compared with the great freeze of 2010, was another important factor.
A department spokesman confirmed last year’s level was the lowest since DECC’s carbon emission records started in 1970, at a time when heavy manufacturing plants were much more dominant in Britain’s industrial landscape and belched out 685m tonnes of carbon.

The deindustrialisation that has occurred since then, and a shift from coal to gas power, has seen a steady downward trend in the emissions linked to climate change.

But last year’s fall was especially sharp, with CO2 emissions from home heaters, power plants and car exhausts declining 8 per cent from 2010 and total greenhouse gases falling 8 per cent.

Part of the reason was an 11 per cent jump in nuclear power used in electricity generation, while high gas prices helped prompt a 17 per cent fall in the use of gas.

Nuclear power plants do not emit CO2, unlike those that use fossil fuels such as gas, although the extraction, enrichment and transport of uranium produces emissions.

The DECC figures confirm the UK has cut its carbon emissions by at least 23 per cent since 1990, putting it well on track to meet its target of reducing greenhouse emissions by 34 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020.

Ed Davey, energy secretary, said the figures showed the UK was “leading the way in the fight against climate change” and that government policies on home energy efficiency and electricity market reform should see the trend gather pace.

But government incentives to build more renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, appear to have played a relatively small role in the fall in emissions.

Renewables’ share of the electricity generated in 2011 rose to a record 9.5 per cent. But this was dwarfed by gas, which accounted for 40 per cent, coal at 30 per cent and nuclear power at 19 per cent.

“Renewables have nothing to do with it at all,” said Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford university, adding that it was important to remember that while emissions fell in European countries, global carbon pollution was still rising as nations such as China made the goods the wealthy world imported.

“What matters is our carbon consumption – what our carbon footprint is,” he said. “This is a very different story – while we have been reducing our carbon production we have been increasing our carbon consumption, importing the energy intensive goods we used to produce when we had our own energy intensive industries.”