Environment

The year coal collapsed: 2016 was a turning point for Britain’s electricity

The ConversationSocially and politically, 2016 was a momentous year for Britain. It was also a record breaking year for energy and the environment, but thankfully for all the right reasons. Britain’s electricity was the cleanest it had been in 60 years, as coal collapsed and renewables rose to record levels.

In 2016, just 9.3% of British (not UK – as Northern Ireland is calculated separately) electricity was generated from coal, down from more than 40% in 2012. This is the lowest share coal has ever provided in the system’s 100-plus year history, and the lowest absolute quantity burnt since the start of World War II.

Great Britain’s annual electrical energy mix. Author calculations: data source National Grid and Elexon

In fact, at 10.2% of generation, wind farms produced more electricity, a significant milestone in Britain’s low-carbon transition. Natural gas has picked up most of the slack and posted its best year since 2010; but nuclear, solar and biomass are all also on the rise.

British electricity generation by source. Note the drop in coal and the emergence of wind. Author calculations. Data source: National Grid and Elexon

The demise of coal means British carbon emissions from electricity generation have halved over the past four years. This is not greenwashing or creative accounting. When factoring in the emissions released abroad from producing electricity and biomass that is then imported, Britain’s electricity sector released 82.4m tonnes of CO2. The last time annual emissions were below 100m tonnes was back in 1955.

Great Britain’s power sector carbon emissions since 1920. Author calculations. Data source National Grid and Elexon

Emissions were 25% lower than in 2015, so changes in the electricity mix mean that each Briton effectively produced 400kg less CO2 – without lifting a finger. The carbon content of a unit of electricity has fallen to 277 grams per kWh, beating the strict pathway set out in the Climate Change Act’s Carbon Budgets by up to four years.

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