Prospects for Electric Vehicles look increasingly good

Electric vehicles update

Indicators emerging over the last 18 months increase the likelihood of plug-in vehicles becoming predominant over the next 20 years.  However, continuing strong policy support is necessary to achieve this.

Several indicators have recently emerged for longer term sales of plug-in vehicles (electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids).  These include targets set by governments and projections by analysts and manufacturers.

The chart shows these indicators compared with three scenarios for the growth of plug-in vehicles globally if policy drivers are strong.  (The scenarios are based on those I published around 18 months ago, and have been slightly updated for this post – see the end of this post and previous post for details.) The green lines show the share of sales, and the blue lines show the share of the total vehicle stock.  Other indicators are marked on the chart as diamonds, shown in green as they correspond to the green lines.  I’ve excluded some projections from oil companies as they appear unrealistic.

The scenarios show plug in vehicles sales in 2040 at between just over half and nearly all of new light vehicles.  However the time taken for the vehicle fleet to turn over means that they are a smaller proportion of the fleet, accounting for between a third and about three quarters of the light vehicle fleet by 2040.  The large range of the scenarios reflects the large uncertainties involved, but they all show plug-in vehicles becoming predominant over the next 20 years or so.

The indicators shown are all roughly in line with the scenario range (see detailed notes at the end of this post), giving additional confidence that the scenario range is broadly realistic, although the challenges of achieving growth towards the upper end of the range remain formidable.  Some of the projections by manufacturers and individual jurisdictions are towards the top end of the range, but the global average may be lower.

Chart.  Growth of sales of Plug-in light vehicles


The transition will of course need to be accompanied by continuing decarbonisation of the power sector to meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.

Maintaining the growth of electric vehicle sales nevertheless looks likely to require continuing regulatory drivers, at least for the next 15 years or so.  This will include continuing tightening emissions standards on CO2 and NOx and enabling charging infrastructure.  If these things are done then the decarbonisation of a major source of emissions thus now seems well within sight.

Adam Whitmore – 13th October 2017



Background and notes

This background section gives further information on the data shown on the chart.  In some cases it is unclear from the reports whether projections are for pure electric vehicles only or also include plug-in hybrids.

Developments in regulation

Policy in many countries seems increasingly to favour plug-in vehicles.  Some recent developments are summarised in the table below.   These policy positions for the most part still need to be backed by solid implementation programmes.  Nevertheless they appear to increase the probability that growth will lie within the envelope of the projections shown above, which are intended to correspond to a world of strong policy drivers towards electrification.

Policy developments 

Jurisdiction Policy commitment
UK Prohibit sale of new cars with internal combustion engines by 2040[1]
France Prohibit sale of new cars with internal combustion engines by 2040[2]
Norway All new sales electric by 2025[3]
India All cars electric by 2030 (which appears unrealistic so goal may be modified, for example to new cars)[4]
China Reportedly considering a prohibition on new petrol and diesel.  Date remains to be confirmed, but target is for 20% of the market to be electric by 2025.[5]



The market is currently growing rapidly from a low base.  Total vehicle sales were 0.73 million in 2016, compared with 0.58 million in 2015.  Six countries have reached over 1% electric car market share in 2016: Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, the United Kingdom and China. Norway saw 42% of sales being EVs in June 2017

Manufacturers’ projections

Several manufacturers have issued projections for the share of their sales they expect to be for plug-in vehicles.  Some of these are shown in the table.

Manufacturers’ projections for sales of plug-in vehicles


Manufacturer Target/expectation for plug-in vehicles
Volkswagen 20-25% of sales by 2025[6]
Volvo All new models launched from 2019[7]
PSA ( Peugeot and Citroen brands) 80% percent of models electrified by 2023[8]


Clearly individual manufacturers’ projections may not be achieved, and to some extent the statements may be designed to reassure shareholders that they are not missing an opportunity.  So far European manufacturers have been slow to develop EVs.  Also these manufacturers may not representative of the market as a whole.  Other companies may progress more slowly.

However others may proceed more quickly.  As has been widely reported, Tesla has taken over 500,000 advanced orders for its Model 3 EV, itself equivalent to almost the entire market for electric vehicles in 2015.  And in line with the Chinese Government’s targets manufacturers in China are expected to increase production rapidly.

Projections by other observers

Projections by other observers are in most cases now in line with the scenairos shown here.

  • Morgan Stanley project 7% of global sales by 2025[9]
  • BNP Paribas project 11% of global sales by 2025, 26% by 2030[10]
  • JP Morgan profject 35% of sales by 2025 and 48% of sales by 2030[11]
  • Last year Bloomberg’s projections showed growth to be slower than with these projections. However they have since updated their analysis, showing 54% of new cars being electric by 2040[12].


In contrast BP predicts much slower growth in their projections[13].  However BP’s view seems implausibly low in any scenario in which regulatory drivers towards EVs are as strong as they appear to be.  Exxon Mobil gives lower projections still, while OPEC’s are a little above BP’s but still well below the low case shown here.[14].

Notes on changes to projections since May 2016

These projections are updated from my post last year but the differences over the next 15 years are comparatively minor.  The projections are for light vehicles, so exclude trucks and buses.  Note that percentage growth in early years has been faster than shown by the s-curve model – however this is likely to prove a result of the choice of a simple function.  What matters most for emissions reductions is the growth from now and in particular through the 2020s.

Assumption change Rationale
Higher saturation point Continuing advances in batteries reduce the size of the remaining niche for internal combustion engine vehicles
Longer time to saturation The higher saturation point will need additional time to reach.
Somewhat slower growth in total numbers of vehicles Concerns about congestion and changed modes of ownership and use are assumed to lead to lower growth in the total vehicle stock over time.  This tends to make a certain percentage penetrations easier to achieve because the percentage applies to fewer vehicles.



















Underestimating the contribution of solar PV risks damaging policy making

Underestimating the contribution of solar PV risks damaging policy making

The continuing lack of realism in projections for solar PV risks damaging policy making by misdirecting effort in developing low carbon technologies.

Solar PV continues its remarkable growth …

Electricity generation from solar PV continues to grow very rapidly.  It now supplies over 1% of global electricity consumption and this proportion looks set to continue growing very rapidly over the next decade as costs continue to fall.

Chart 1 Rapid growth of solar PV generation continues

Sources: BP statistical review of world energy [i].  1% of consumption based on data for generation with an adjustment for losses.

Many studies have underestimated this growth and continue to do so …

This growth has been much faster than many predicted.  In 2013 and again in 2015  I noted[ii] that the IEA’s annual World Energy Outlook (WEO) projections for both wind and solar PV were consistently vastly too low.  Specifically, the IEA’s projections showed the annual rate of installation of wind and solar PV capacity remaining roughly constant, whereas in fact it both were increasing rapidly.  Updated analysis for solar PV recently published by Auke Hoekstra[iii] shows that this position seems remarkably unchanged (see Chart 2).  The repeated gross divergence between forecasts and outturns over so many years makes it hard to conclude anything other than the IEA is showing a wilful disconnection with reality in this respect, though their historical data on the energy sector remains very valuable.

Chart 2:  IEA projections for solar PV capacity continue to vastly underestimate growth

Although the IEA’s projections are particularly notable for their inability to learn from repeated mistakes, others have also greatly underestimated the growth of solar PV[iv].    Crucially, as a recent study in Nature Energy[v] shows, this tendency extends to many energy models used in policy making, including those relied on by the IPCC in its Assessment Reports.

This is largely because models have underestimated both the effect of policy support on deployment and the rate of technological progress, and so have underestimated the resulting falls in cost both in absolute terms and relative to other technologies.  Where new information has been available there has often been a lag in incorporating it in models.  Feedbacks between cost falls, deployment and policy may also have been under-represented in many models.  Consequently models have understated both growth rates and ultimate practical potential for solar PV.

This damages policy making  …

Does this matter?  I think it does, for at least two reasons.

First, if policy is based on misleading projections about the role of different technologies then policy support and effort will likely be misdirected.  For example, means of integrating solar PV at very large scale into energy systems look to have been under-researched and under-supported.  Other low carbon technologies such as power generation with CCS may have received more attention in comparison to their potential[vi].

Second, there is a risk of damaging the policy debate.  In particular there is a risk of exacerbating polarisation of the debate, rather than creating a healthy mix of competing judgements.  There is already a tendency for some commentaries on energy to favour fossil energy sources, and perhaps nuclear, and for others to favour renewables – what one might call “traditionalist” and “transitionalist” positions.  Traditionalists, including many energy companies, tend to point to the size and inertia of the energy system and the problems of replacing the current system with new sources of energy.  Transitionalists, including many entrepreneurs and environmentalists, tend to emphasise the urgent need to reduce emissions, the speed of change in technologies and costs now underway, and the exciting business opportunities created by change.

Both perspectives have merit, and the debate is too important to ignore either.  The IEA provides an example of distorting the debate. It will naturally, due to its history, tend to be seen as to some extent favouring the traditionalist viewpoint.  If this perception is reinforced by grossly unrealistic projections for renewables it risks devaluing the IEA’s other work even when it is more realistic, leaving it on one side of the debate. An opportunity for a balanced contribution from a major institution is lost.  The debate will be more polarised as a result, risking misleading policy makers, and distorting policy choices.

Securing balanced, well informed debate on the transition to a low carbon energy system is quite challenging enough.  Persistently underestimating the role of a major technology does not help.

Adam Whitmore -26th September 2017




[ii] For details see here, here and  here


[iv] An exception, as I have previously noted is work by Greenpeace.  Some previous scenario work by Shell was also close on wind and solar, but greatly overestimated the role of CCS and biofuels.

[v] The Underestimated Potential for Solar PV Energy to Mitigate Climate Change, Creutzig et. a. Nature Energy, Published 28/08/17

[vi] CCS still looks essential for decarbonisation in some cases, and given lead times for its development continued research and early deployment is still very much needed.  This is especially so for industrial applications.  Deployment in power generation looks likely to be more limited over the next decade or more, though some may still be needed when to move to very low emissions, and eventually to zero net emissions.  However the contribution of CCS to power generation now looks likely to be much less than that from solar PV.

A chance to change some dubious climate accounting

The UK should change the way it accounts for emissions under its legally binding carbon budgets, whether or not it remains part of the EUETS.

An apparently technical question about the UK’s accounting for its carbon budgets raises broader questions about alignment of targets and policy instruments.

The UK’s carbon budgets are legally binding obligations under the Climate Change Act (2008) to limit total emissions from the UK.  Checking whether emissions are within the budget ought to be simple.  Measure the UK’s emissions to see if they are at or under budget.  If not there’s a problem.

But it does not work that way.  For sectors not covered by the EUETS actual emissions are indeed used.  However for those sectors covered by the EUETS – power generation and large industry – emissions are deemed always to be equal to the UK’s allocation under the EUETS (which is made up of both auctioned allowances allocated free of charge[1]), whatever emissions are in reality.  Actual emissions from the covered sectors could be much higher and carbon budgets would still be met

While this may sound bizarre, there was a logic to it when the rules were established.  If UK emissions from the traded sector are above the UK’s allocation UK emitters need to buy in EUAs.  If the scheme were short of allowances, as was expected when present accounting rules were set, the additional EUAs bought by UK emitters to cover emissions above the UK’s allocation would lead to reduced supply of EUAs for others.  There would in consequently be reduced emissions elsewhere matching the increased emissions in the UK.  The approach was therefore to some extent a reliable measure of net emissions.  It also aligned with the EUETS having clear National Allocation Plans (NAPs) for EUAs for each Member State, something that no longer exists.

Now this type of accounting no longer makes sense.  With a large surplus of allowances in the EUETS, if the covered sectors in the UK emit more than their budget they will simply buy surplus allowances.  These allowances would otherwise almost all eventually be placed in the Market Stability Reserve (MSR).  Under current proposals (and indeed most likely eventualities), these EUAs would eventually be cancelled.  Additional emissions in the UK are therefore not balanced by reductions elsewhere – they simply result in buying surplus EUAs which would never be used.  This type of situation is sometimes called “buying hot air”.

To avoid this occurring in future, accounting for carbon budgets needs to change to actual emissions.  This will necessarily happen anyway if the UK leaves the EU ETS.  UK allocations under the EUETS will no longer exist. Accounting cannot be based on a non-existent allocation.

But even if the UK stays part of the EU ETS the basis of accounting should change to prevent the UK is meeting its carbon budgets by simply buying in surplus EUAs.

The possibility of buying in surplus to cover UK emissions appears quite real.  UK emissions were above allocation until quite recently.  This was not too serious a problem then, because carbon budgets were being met fairly comfortably anyway.  However the situation may recur under the 2020s and early 2030s under fourth and fifth carbon budgets, which will be much more challenging to meet.  Total UK emissions could be allowed to rise above those carbon budgets simply as a result of an accounting treatment[2].

When a target applies to a jurisdiction that does not wholly align with the policy instrument there will always be a need to consider circumstances in assessing whether targets are being met.  The UK should not be able to meet its carbon budgets simply due to an accounting convention.  Current rules were put in place before the current oversupply under the EUETS arose.  It is no longer fit for purpose.  It should be changed to accounting based on actual emissions whether or not the UK is part of the EUETS.

Adam Whitmore -20th June 2017

[1] This consists of auctioning plus free allowances plus UK allocation under the NER. In Phase 4 it would also include any allocation from the Innovation Fund. Future volumes placed in the MSR and thus excluded from auctioning would also be deducted from the total. If the UK were to leave the EU ETS and backloaded UK allowances currently destined for the MSR were to return to the market this would have a significant effect on measured performance against carbon budgets under current accounting.

[2] Whether this led to total actual emissions being above carbon budgets would depend on the performance of the non-traded sector.

Overcoming the difficulty of acting to reduce emissions

Limiting climate change poses major challenges to traditional decision making, but progress is now being made.

This is the second of two posts stepping back a bit and considering why the climate change problem is so difficult to solve.  My previous post looked at some of the physical feature of the problem such as the scale, dispersion and diversity of emissions.  This post looks more at the economic, social and psychological barriers to action[1].


The first area of difficulty is in perceptions of the facts.  The science of climate change now one of the best established areas of human knowledge.  However a gradual change, for example with temperatures on average increasing by around a fifth of a degree per decade, may be difficult to notice.  Shifting probabilities of extreme events may be similarly difficult to perceive. Consequently, even facts well-established academically may not readily become part of acknowledged personal experience, and so will not be as readily internalised into decidion making.

This may be compounded by an availability bias.  Those regions changing most rapidly and visibly, especially the arctic, are remote and sparsely populated, so changes are less available to people despite the best efforts of reporters.

These difficulties are compounded by a framing effect due to daily or seasonal temperature variation.  A three degree rise in annual global mean surface temperatures may not sound like much if you experience day to day fluctuations of much more than that, even though in reality a change of this magnitude would lead to very severe consequences. As a result of this framing, many of the consequences of climate change may not sound so bad to those not closely involved with the issue.

On the other hand, the risks of some solution may be seen as high – “the lights might go out” – because in many ways the current system works well.  People’s subjective perception of the balance between risk and reward may therefore be quite distorted.

Finally, the perceived solutions to climate change may conflict with some value systems (see here and here), making people less willing to accept what needs to be done.


The difficulty of action is compounded by long (and uncertain) time lags between cause and effect.  Many consequences, such as the worst effects of sea level rise, are thus seen as belonging to the distant future.  They are beyond the normal planning horizons of governments, companies and most other institutions – though it is worth noting in many cases not outside the lifetime of today’s children.  It also challenges our own individual decision making.  We often have a tendency to concentrate on those problems which seem most urgent.  This makes climate change difficult for people, companies and governments to deal with.

Damage is also often seen as remote in place as well as time.  Most people will tend naturally to be less concerned with changes perceived as unlikely to affect their immediate neighbourhood.

Imperatives from existing social structures

Furthermore, career and other motivating social imperatives are not often aligned with dealing with the climate problem.  A bonus may depend on this year’s profits, or a promotion on generating local value, an election on a more immediate problem.  And social norms may encourage bigger houses, bigger cars and more air travel despite their effect on the climate.  Many people (including me) would be reluctant to live in a smaller house for the sake of the climate.

Governance of a global public good

The most pervasive barrier to action is that emissions and the benefits of the associated activity tend to be largely local, whereas the resulting damage is global.  The global nature of the climate means that a stable climate is a global public good in the economic sense[2].  However this public good must be maintained by avoiding harmful emissions.

As in all such cases, there are incentives for some to free-ride on the efforts of others to support the provision of this public good.  No one country can by itself sustain a stable climate – although China can make a huge difference – but there is no global enforcement mechanism to oblige co-operation.

The ability of any one company or any one individual in influence the outcome is smaller still.  People are right to feel that they alone cannot solve the problem.  There is a need for co-operation at a global level.

Tropical deforestation, a major source of emissions, provides a further difficulty.  It is hard to solve in part because governance is often weak even at the national level in forest countries.  This leads to weak constraints on the actions of companies and individuals, often pursuing their own incentives, which fail to reflect the wider environmental damage.

What happens when these don’t apply

The Montreal Protocol on CFCs offers an interesting contrast, in that it was achieved in part because it lacked some of the characteristics of climate change.  Although the science is complex it could be boiled down to a simple message: “chemicals we are putting into the atmosphere destroy the ozone layer.”  The lags involved were perceived as comfortably within normal human timescales.  And the consequences of failure were easy to present as scary. “If we don’t fix this problem lots more people will get skin cancer” is about as simple and relatable as messages get.

Added to this, the uses of the chemicals were limited to a few sectors of the economy, with readily available substitutes.  This made the costs appear much lower, and opposition from businesses and their allies, some of whom would benefit from regulatory change, much less strong.

The result was relatively prompt and effective action.

A way forward for reducing emissions

This also points a way forward for climate change.  The extension international agreement to limit HFCs because of their effects on the climate is an example of similar forces at work, and is a cause for optimism.  A major threat to the climate has been addressed.  Although not perfect, the agreement appears to have every chance of being successful.  This is despite having many of the barriers to action that hamper all attempts to address climate change.

What was absent was the scale and cost of decarbonising the energy system.  But even here there is progress.  Low carbon technologies are rapidly improving and falling in cost, in some cases to a spectacular degree.  This is lowering the barriers to action, and will do so to an ever increasing extent.  It is creating a powerful constituency for action.  There are now many companies invested in the transition to a lower carbon economy and jobs in low carbon industries increasingly outnumber those in high carbon sectors.  Again this will increase over time.

These trends have combined with the greater political awareness of the problem, and the increasing desire to do something about it, which is embodied in the Paris Agreement. The reactions to statements from the USA of intention to withdraw from in the agreement indicate how solid the international consensus has now become.

While the Paris Agreement provides an overarching framework, the hard work of emissions reductions is now being achieved by a vast and growing range of regulatory interventions across the world.  There is a huge diversity of regulation now in place, from carbon pricing to emissions standards to technology incentives.  Compared with the situation as recently as the beginning of this century progress has been huge.

This is a counsel of optimism, not of complacency or of naiveté about the rate of progress compared with what is needed.  Limiting dangerous climate change will still require a great deal of hard work, and quite a lot of luck.  But progress has been enormous despite formidable barriers, and there is no reason why progress should not continue.

Adam Whitmore – 6th June 2017  

[1] For further discussion of some of the issues raised in this post see file:///C:/Users/Adam/Documents/Book/Research%20material/The_Dragons_of_Inaction_Psychological_Barriers_Tha.pdf .  This is a useful review of psychological barriers, although in my view the author overemphasises the role of individual action.   See also:

[2] A stable climate is non-rival (someone can benefit from it without limiting the ability of others to do so) and non-excludable (there is no way of preventing someone benefiting).  According to the 2009 movie Star Trek this concept of a public good is sufficiently important to be included in the education curriculum on the planet Vulcan.  The reference to the definition using the terms non-rival and non-excludable occurs during the first scene on Vulcan, about 15 minutes into the movie.

Climate change: how did we get here, and why is it so hard to fix? (Part 1)

Activities that cause emissions are ubiquitous, diverse and deeply embedded in modern life.  The world’s energy system is huge and long-lived.  This makes emissions tough to deal with. 

This post is the first of two stepping back a little from the specific topics I usually cover to take a very high level look at why the climate change problem is so hard to fix.  This first post looks at how we got here and (at a very high level) the physical and engineering challenges of addressing the climate change problem.  The next post will consider some of the political and psychological barriers to greater action.

The consequence of industrialisation

The world’s climate was remarkably stable from before the birth of agriculture, some 8-10,000 years ago, until very recent times[1].  Human civilisation grew up in a stable climate, and knew nothing else, despite the calamities caused on occasions by storms, floods, drought, and so forth.

Industrialisation changed this.  There is no single year that definitively marks the beginning of industrialisation, but 1776 probably as good a reference point as any.  It was an eventful year, with the US Declaration of Independence giving history one of its most famous dates, while elsewhere the first edition of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published and the Bolshoi Theatre opened its first season.  But in the long view of history perhaps more important than any of these was that James Watt’s steam engines began to power industrial production[2].  This, more than any other event, marks the beginning of the industrial era.

In the nearly two and a half centuries since 1776, world population has grown by almost a factor of about 10.  Economic output per person has also grown by a factor of about 10.  Taking these two changes together, the world’s economic activity has increased by a factor of about 100.  This has put huge stresses on a range of natural systems, including the atmosphere[3],[4].

The increase in the use of fossil fuels has been even greater than the increase in industrial activity.  Around 12 million tonnes of fossil fuels, almost entirely coal, were burnt each year before 1776[5].  Today the world burns about 12 billion tonnes of fossil fuels each year, an increase of a factor of 1000[6].

This huge increase in the burning of fossil fuels is now – together with deforestation, agriculture and a few other activities – changing the make-up of the atmosphere on a large scale.  This in turn, is changing the world’s climate.   Within a single human lifetime – just one percent or so of the time since the birth of agriculture – changes to the climate are likely to be much greater than human civilisation has ever before experienced.  The consequences of these changes are likely to be largely harmful, because manmade and natural systems are largely adapted to the world we have, not the one we are making.

The characteristics of the systems that have led to these changes also make the problems hard to address.

The scale of emissions is huge …

The scale of CO2 emitted from the energy system is vast, around 36 billion tonnes p.a.  If this were frozen into solid form as “dry ice” it would cover the whole of Manhattan Island to the depth of about two thirds of the Empire State building.

The system that generates these emissions is correspondingly huge.  The world’s energy system cost tens of trillions of dollars to build, and is correspondingly immensely expensive to replace.

The diversity and dispersion of emissions makes the problem more challenging …

The problem is worse even than its scale alone suggests.  It would be simpler to deal with emissions if they were all in one place, whether Manhattan or elsewhere, and in solid form.  Instead emissions are dispersed across billions of individual sources around the world.  And they come from many different types of activity, from transporting food and powering electronics to heating and cooling homes and offices.  There is no single technology doing one thing to be replaced, but a wide diversity of technologies and applications.

And once emissions get into the atmosphere the greenhouse gases are very dilute.  Carbon dioxide makes up only 400 parts per million (0.04%) of the atmosphere.  Among other things this makes capture of CO2 once it has got into the atmosphere difficult and expensive.

And assets producing emissions are very long lived …

Energy infrastructure often lasts many decades, so changing infrastructure tends to be a long term process, with premature replacement expensive.  And on the whole the existing system does its job remarkably well.  Some political considerations aside, there would be little need for very rapid changes to the system if it were not for climate change and other forms of pollution.

Energy is central to modern life …

Finally it’s not possible to simply switch off the world’s energy system because it is essential to modern life.  Hurricane Sandy disrupted much of New York’s energy system, and the consequences of that gave an indication of how quickly modern life collapses without critical energy infrastructure.

These physical characteristics of the problem are compounded by the political and psychological obstacles to change at the necessary scale.  I will return to these in my next post.

Adam Whitmore – 22nd May 2017


[1] This climatically stable period since the end of the last ice age between 11,000 to 12,000 years ago is referred to as the Holocene.  Agriculture started not long after the ice sheets retreated and the world warmed.  Human activity has now led to a new period, referred to as the Anthropocene.

[2]  The first use of the Watt engine to provide the rotary power, which was crucial for factories, was a little later in 1782 at the Soho manufactory near Birmingham.



[5]Reliable data is obviously hard to come by that far back, but See Energy for a Sustainable World: From the Oil Age to a Sun-Powered Future By Vincenzo Balzani, Nicola Armaroli .  They estimate 10 million tonnes in 1700 and 16 million tonnes by 1815.  The majority of the increase would have been in the later part of this period.  See also Socioecological Transitions and Global Change, edited by Marina Fischer-Kowalski, Helmut Haberl, who quote estimates of 3 million tonnes p.a. in 1700 in the UK, a large proportion of the world total at the time, with little increase to 1776.  This consumption included a few primitive, inefficient steam engines, used mainly for pumping water from coal mines themselves.  The Newcomen steam engine required such large quantities of coal that it was rarely economic to site it away from coal mines.  The Watt engine was more than twice as efficient.

[6] My estimate of the total mass of coal, oil and gas, based on data in BP statistical review of World Energy.

UK emissions reductions offer lessons for others

The UK has outperformed all other major economies in emissions reductions since 1990.  This offers lessons for both the UK and others.

In my previous post I described how the UK has made good progress towards its legally binding commitment to reduce emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050.  This post compares emissions cuts in the UK with those elsewhere.

Since 1990 the UK has reduced both total and per capita emissions more than any other major economy (see chart).  The UK’s lead would be greater if emissions reductions in 2016 were included, because UK emissions fell by a remarkable 6% in 2016 alone, mainly due to falls in emissions from the power sector[1].  This is despite the percentage fall for CO2 from the UK (shown here) being smaller than when all greenhouse gases are taken into account[2].

Reductions in CO2 emissions from the energy sector and industry 1990 to 2015 – Total (blue) and per capita (green)

Data for this chart and other data quoted in the text is largely sourced from:

Emissions from the Russian Federation have also fallen significantly, but this reflects the very high level of emissions in the Soviet Union, with its huge and pervasive inefficiencies.  All of the decrease in emissions from the Russian Federation was in the 1990s.  Germany has also benefitted from reduction in emissions in the former East Germany and has made good progress in other respects, notably with installing renewables.  However it has been hampered by continuing extensive use of coal and lignite for power generation.

Emissions reductions in France have been somewhat less, but this remains a very creditable performance because France started with a very low carbon power sector, consisting almost entirely of nuclear and hydro.  There were thus fewer opportunities for emissions reductions.  Despite the lower percentage fall than in the UK, France’s per capita emissions in 2015 were still almost 20% below those of the UK (5.1 tonnes per capita in France compared with 6.2 tonnes per capita for the UK).

The USA has accommodated significant population growth with only a small rise in emissions, but this is clearly nowhere near enough if it is to make an appropriate contribution to global reductions.  Emissions remain at 16.1 tonnes per capita, more than two a and a half times UK levels and more than three time French levels.  Japan’s emissions have been largely constant through the period.  Australia has done notably badly. China’s emissions (not shown) have roughly quadrupled over the period, reflecting its rapid, carbon intensive development.

While there have been many factors at work here, the UK approach to policy has played its part.  Policy has successfully targeted relatively low cost emissions reduction, notably reducing coal use in the power sector.  Above all the Climate Change Act (2008) has provided a consistent and rigorous policy framework.

There will doubtless be some who argue that outperforming others to date means the UK needs to do less.  But this is very far from the case.  Others need to catch up to what the UK has achieved, for example by eliminating coal use.  Power generation from coal currently accounts for just under a third of the total emissions from energy and industry globally.

And the UK itself still needs to stick resolutely to its goals, and meet the challenge of continuing decarbonisation now many of the cheaper and easier things have already been done.

But others can at least look at lessons from the UK experience and see what there is to learn that could apply to their own circumstances.

Adam Whitmore – 9th May 2017



[2] The percentage reduction for the UK is less than quoted in my previous post, mainly because the data in this post is for CO2, so excludes large reductions in UK emissions of methane, mainly from waste, and N2O, mainly from industry. There are differences between sources of data for CO2 only, but these are small.  The Edgar data quoted here shows 580 million tonnes in 1990 falling to 400 million tonnes in 2015 (31% fall).  The UK Government’s data shows CO2 emissions falling from 596 million tonnes to 404 million tonnes over the same period (32% fall).  The UK’s 2015 final greenhouse gas emissions inventory is available here:



Half way there

The UK has made excellent progress on reducing emissions.  But the hard part is yet to come.

The UK’s Climate Change Act (2008) established a legally binding obligation to reduce UK emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels by 2050.  This is an ambitious undertaking, a sixty year programme to cut four in every five tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously growing the economy.

The story so far is, broadly, an encouraging one.  2016 emission were 42% below 1990 levels, about half way to the 2050 target[1].  This has been achieved in 26 years, a little under half the time available.  And it has been achieved while population has grown by about 15%[2] and the economy has grown by over 60%.  The reduction in emissions from 1990 to 2015 is shown on the chart below, which also shows the UK’s legislated carbon budgets.   There is of course some uncertainty in the data, especially for non-CO2 gases, but uncertainties in trends are less than the uncertainty in the absolute levels, and emissions of CO2 from energy, which is the largest component of the total, are closely tracked.

The UK is half way towards its 2050 target, in a little under half the available time …

Source: Committee on Climate Change

The chart below shows the sectoral breakdown of how this has been achieved, and this raises some important caveats.

Progress in some sectors has been much more rapid than others …

Source: Committee on Climate Change

The largest source of gains has been the power sector, especially if a further fall of a remarkable in emissions from power generation in 2016 is included (the chart only shows data to 2015).  While renewables have made an important contribution, much of this fall has been due to replacing coal with gas.  This been an economically efficient, low cost way of reducing emissions to date, to which UK carbon price support has been a major contributor.  However coal generation has now fallen to very low levels, so further progress requires replacing gas with low carbon generation – renewables, nuclear and CCS.  This is more challenging, and in some cases is likely to prove more expensive.

The next largest source of gains, roughly a third of the total reduction, is from industry.  However, while detailed data is not available, a large part of this reduction may have been due to broader economic trends, notably globalisation of the world economy leading to heavy industry becoming more concentrated in emerging economies.  This trend may also have had some effect on electricity demand and thus emissions.  The aggregate reduction in global emissions may thus be smaller than indicated by looking at the UK alone.  Reducing global emissions still requires a great deal more progress on industrial emissions, especially in emissions intensive sectors notably iron and steel and cement.

Progress in reduction of emissions from waste, especially methane from landfill, has been a third important contributor.  Again, this has been highly cost-effective reduction.  However about two thirds of emissions have now been eliminated so further measures will necessarily make a smaller contribution, though there is much that can still be done with the remainder such as eliminating organic waste from landfill.

Other sectors have done much less, and will need to do more in the years to come.  Progress on f-gases may be helped by the recent international agreement on HFCs, although more will still need to be done.  Transport emissions have made only slow progress in recent years.  It is essential that electrification is encouraged so that a large change similar to that achieved in the power sector can be achieved in transport.  The buildings stock remains an intractable problem, and the first priority must be to at least make sure that new buildings are built to the highest standards of insulation.

So continuing the trend of falling emissions in future will be difficult and will require new and enhanced policy measures.  But in 1990 the prospects of achieving what has already been achieved doubtless looked daunting, and progress to date should encourage further efforts in future.

Adam Whitmore -25th April 2017

Material in this post draws on a presentation by Owen Bellamy of the Committee on Climate Change at a British Institute of Energy Economics seminar on 5th April 2017.

[1] The UK’s domestic emissions need to go down slightly more rapidly than the headline target would suggest due to the role of international aviation and shipping.  This is shown on the chart.  However the broad message is the same.