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Transport to blame for almost a quarter of UK’s emissions in 2020, official data suggests

Transport emissions are biggest threat to UK net zero as figures show huge drop during lockdowns. Campaigners say £27bn on new roads threatens progress after such lockdown lows

Juliana O'Rourke
02 February 2022
Net territorial UK greenhouse gas emissions by NC sector, 2020 (%)
Net territorial UK greenhouse gas emissions by NC sector, 2020 (%)
Figure 7 shows how the volume of traffic on the roads has changed over time in Great Britain, which reflects the trend seen for the UK as a whole
Figure 7 shows how the volume of traffic on the roads has changed over time in Great Britain, which reflects the trend seen for the UK as a whole

 

Coronavirus lockdowns left Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions 9.5% lower in 2020 compared to the year before, new official figures show — but fears have been expressed that rising transport pollution could threaten net zero targets. 

Official data published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) estimates that in 2020, net territorial greenhouse gas emissions in the UK were 405.5 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e), a decrease of 9.5% compared to the 2019 figure of 447.9 million tonnes and 49.7% lower than they were in 1990. Carbon dioxide made up around 79% of the 2020 emissions. 

The statistics reveal that although the transport sector delivered the largest reduction in emissions in the UK from 2019 to 2020, it still remained the biggest polluter, responsible for almost a quarter of total emissions.

The statistics reveal that although the transport sector delivered the largest reduction in emissions in the UK from 2019 to 2020, it still remained the biggest polluter, responsible for almost a quarter of total emissions

The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions introduced in 2020 across the UK had major impacts on various aspects of society and the economy, which led to a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. 

In 2020, net territorial greenhouse gas emissions in the UK were estimated to be 405.5 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e), a decrease of 9.5% compared to the 2019 figure of 447.9 million tonnes and 49.7% lower than they were in 1990. Carbon dioxide made up around 79% of the 2020 total.

Over half of the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions between 2019 and 2020 was from the reduction in emissions from transport, which were down 19.2% (23.5 MtCO2e) due to the large reduction in the use of road transport during the nationwide lockdowns.

Despite this decrease, transport remained the largest emitting sector, responsible for 24% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.

Says the report: "Road transport is the most significant source of emissions in this sector, in particular passenger cars; and the changes which have been seen over the period were heavily influenced by this category.

"Figure 7 (see images, above left) shows how the volume of traffic on the roads has changed over time in Great Britain, which reflects the trend seen for the UK as a whole. Motor vehicle traffic volumes have generally increased throughout this period, other than a fall seen between 2007 and 2010 following the recession.

"Again, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a 2020 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Final Figures 16 dramatic impact on the level of road transport occurring in 2020, with cars & taxis and other vehicles seeing falls in total vehicle kilometres of around 25%."

The geographic coverage of the BEIS report is UK only unless stated otherwise. The figures in this statistical release are used as the basis for reporting against UK greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets and provide information for users on the drivers of emissions trends since 1990.

Emissions are estimated following the guidance set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)1, as required for the UK’s submissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) each year.

The estimates present emissions on a “territorial” basis, so only include emissions which occur within the UK’s borders. They therefore exclude emissions from UK businesses and residents that occur abroad, including from international aviation and shipping, and any emissions embedded within the supply chain of manufactured goods and services imported into the UK (while including emissions that occur in the UK resulting from exported goods and services).

According to The Independent, research published last week found the government’s current spending plan, including cuts to taxes for internal flights and a £27bn road building programme, will add 38 million tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere over the next four years.

Carla Denyer, the co-leader of the Green Party, told the paper that the new figures from BEIS "do not provide any reassurance".

"Greenhouse gas emissions have rebounded since 2020 as the government has continued to resist meaningful investment in cleaner transport, renewable energy and better-insulated homes," she told The Independent.

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