UK CO2 Emissions Fall to Victorian-Era Levels

©. Greenpeace

UK carbon emissions sank by 6% in 2016. That figure alone suggests impressive progress. But dig a little deeper into the numbers and there's a rather astounding fact:

The last time emissions were consistently that low (381m tonnes last year), Queen Victoria was still sitting on the throne and the motor car had barely been invented. (I say consistently, because general strikes in 1920s led to two sudden, but brief slumps in emissions.)

That's according to newly released analysis by UK-based Carbon Brief, which points to a whopping 52% drop in coal consumption as the primary culprit for this encouraging development. The analysis—based on data from the UK government and the World Resources Institute—includes some fascinating charts that allow you to explore how emissions have changed over time.

There's another rather astounding fact hidden in these numbers: This impressive drop in emissions occurred even as oil and natural gas enjoyed a modest bump in consumption. (+1.6% and +12.5% respectively.)

So the question then becomes this: How much do emissions fall if oil—and eventually natural gas—start to hit turbulence too. It's true to say that coal has had a particularly tough time of late. From stricter emissions standards to lower natural gas prices and increasingly competitive renewables, baseload coal plants have had a hard time keeping up. But such troubles tend to create a vicious cycle—so once coal began to decline, a combination of investor skittishness and reduced policy leverage meant the slump picked up momentum faster than many of us would have imagined.

I've argued this before, but I believe there's good reason to think that oil may soon face similar pressures. Whether it's the growth in electric car sales, increased spending in non-car infrastructure, the spread of ultra low emissions zones in major cities, the rapid adoption of electric buses or the growth of non-car ownership, there are a confluence of forces emerging which may soon start to squeeze oil from all sides.

If such an oil squeeze does come to pass, it will be fascinating to see what happens to UK carbon emissions then.