Thanks to William Blake, an important part of England’s national identity revolves around the idea of the country being ‘a green and pleasant land’. And now, data released by the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) last month hints green outlooks could be helping people in Wales and England cut greenhouse gas emissions. The ONS found that average household energy consumption in the two countries fell by a quarter between 2005 and 2011. And while the possible reasons it suggests for this include people acting to cut their energy bills, it also stresses they could be doing it out of environmental awareness. In full, the ONS puts forward the following five factors as explanations:
• Household improvements such as better loft and cavity wall insulation have improved energy efficiency
• Introduction of energy rating scales for properties and household appliances, allowing consumers to make informed decisions about their purchases
• Improved efficiency of gas boilers and condensing boilers to supply properties with both hot water and central heating
• Generally increasing public awareness of energy consumption and environmental issues
• The price of gas and electricity in the UK overall increased in all years apart from 2010, between 2005 and 2011
As I live in England, the world ‘household’ brought to mind other changes the news often tells me are going on that might also play a role. They are: The number of households in the UK is increasing, and the number of people in each household is decreasing. It could be that the lower energy consumption per household is just because there are fewer people per household to consume the energy. But households are shrinking much more slowly than energy consumption, with average size reducing by just 4% from 2.4 to 2.3 between 2001 and 2011. Or there could be many more households consuming, which would result in an overall increase in emissions. But in 2011 there were 26.3 million households in the UK, a 7% increase since 2001.
People have power
So it seems people in England and Wales really are cutting their energy use at home, and by enough to outweigh the larger number of households. That looks like good news for efforts to fight climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions humans cause. The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) estimates that homes use around 30% of all the energy the country consumes. A flat quarter reduction in countrywide domestic use would therefore have driven a 7.5% reduction in overall consumption. While that ignores the change in household numbers, it fits other evidence. DECC figures also show that between 2005 and 2011 lower energy consumption and increased use of renewable energy cut the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by around 20%.
The changes are not just happening in British homes. Since 2007 UK road traffic fell for three successive years, and has been steady at that level since. Partly due to this, the country’s transport energy consumption fell by around 8% from 2005-2011, helping drive the overall fall in CO2 emissions. But before we get too excited, it’s worth noting that in 2012 the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions reversed their downward trend, rising 3.5%, with DECC figures showing the largest energy consumption increase occurring in domestic usage. And also, the situation in the UK is comparatively unusual. It has been one of the most successful EU countries in reducing its emissions, for example.
To keep global warming below the 2°C threshold beyond which scientists say climate change would be dangerous worldwide greenhouse emissions will have to be below 2010 levels by 2020. Though in 2012 CO2 emissions from the EU and US fell, estimates suggested they rose by 2.6% globally, thanks mainly to big increases in China and India. Products made in these countries are sold all over the world, which effectively means greenhouse gas emissions that benefit us are happening there instead.
In honesty, I have no evidence on exactly how important such green outlooks can be in shaping a nation’s carbon footprint. But I’m happy that my country can set an example that shows that, whatever our motivation, what each of us does can add up to a positive impact on climate change. Let’s insulate our homes; drive less; get better boilers; buy the most efficient products we can. Let’s remember the climate impact of buying products made in countries like China and India, and get climate change under control a kilowatt-hour at a time.
Thanks to Guy Newey (@GuyNewey on Twitter) whose blog on the economic aspects of this trend inspired me to write this blog entry, and Joe Smith (@citizenjoesmith on Twitter) who pointed his blog entry out to me.
Peters GP, Minx JC, Weber CL, & Edenhofer O (2011). Growth in emission transfers via international trade from 1990 to 2008. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (21), 8903-8 PMID: 21518879
Joeri Rogelj, William Hare, Jason Lowe, Detlef P. van Vuuren, Keywan Riahi, Ben Matthews, Tatsuya Hanaoka, Kejun Jiang, & Malte Meinshausen (2011). Emission pathways consistent with a 2°C global temperature limit Nature DOI: 10.1038/nclimate1258