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Consumption down, renewables up – but can energy progress be sustained?

•  Energy efficiency, renewables—checked emissions
•  Progress in coming years not guaranteed
•  More ambition and investment needed

Despite some political uncertainties, there have been some distinctly positive recent points of note for the clean energy sector. 

Firstly, global CO2 emissions have not grown in the last three years, even though economies have.

Energy efficiency and renewables are clearly making an impact, but the International Energy Agency (IEA), which published the statistics, has been quick to point out this doesn't mean emissions have peaked – and there's also much more to do.

The UK story

Checks on energy consumption and rising greenhouse gas emissions are something that is mirrored here in the UK. 

The latest energy and emissions projections from the Department for Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) have suggested that there is likely to be continuous energy demand decline up to 2025. 

The publication highlights that between 1990 and 2015, UK emissions fell 38 per cent whilst the economy grew by 64 per cent, and that by 2020, emissions are projected to be 48 per cent below 1990 levels. 

But this isn’t the whole story, with the years after 2025 looking far less rosy. The report explains that emissions for the domestic residential sector are expected to increase by 10 per cent by 2035, with final energy demand increasing by around 13 per cent. 

It does go on to highlight that new policies will need to be in place to meet the demands of the Paris climate agreement – but the numbers show that the case for investment in energy efficiency, now and onwards, cannot be understated. 

The Government’s forthcoming Emissions Reduction Plan will be an important test, with Energy Saving Trust Chief Executive Philip Sellwood spelling out recently just what needs to be included

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The statistics have also offered hope for those looking for ambitious commitments to the continued transformation of energy infrastructure. The Government has pledged to phase out UK coal power plants by 2025, and overall coal use is projected to decline 59 per cent to 2035. But if this is not surprising, the projection of a 24 per cent decline in gas use over the same period could be more so. 

Even more positively, the low carbon share of electricity generation projections have been upped. They will account for 61 per cent by 2020, says the report – with potential for greater heights should policies continue to evolve to ensure growth. 

The news has gone down well with campaign group WWF. Their Head of Energy and Climate Change, Gareth Redmond-King, said:

“The new energy projections...show an ambitious phase-out of coal, a much needed downward revision of new gas capacity, and a heartening increase in renewables and storage. The UK Government is starting to realise that the future of energy production is a flexible system with more and more renewables, helping ensure that fossil fuels stay where they belong – firmly underground. 

"This is good news for the consumer, better news for the economy and best news for our environment.”. Gareth Redmond-King, Head of Energy and Climate Change, WWF

Norms must change

It's important to note that it's unlikely to be entirely plain sailing towards a more sustainable future from here. 

Perspectives for the energy transition: Investment needs for a low-carbon energy systemWhile a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has shown that world energy demand in 2050 could well be about the same as today due to continued efforts in energy efficiency, energy supply still needs to change dramatically if climate targets are to be hit. 

The report's authors added a sobering note making clear that the connections between fossil fuel industries and national and international decision-making can't continue as they are now if this is to be achieved. 

They said: “Subsidies that sustain ageing conventional energy industries should be abandoned in order to level the playing field. Modern energy access, fair competition and sustainable development need to underpin energy policy making.”

The global tone around reducing energy use and changing how it is generated has changed significantly in recent years – and this has been reflected in some telling progress. But while strong projections are one thing, the job isn't done. The next steps are pivotal.

Share your thoughts with us in the comments below, or tweet us @EnergySvgTrust.

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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