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Last updated: 13 March 2024

C02 Emissions Per Person in the UK

Carbon emissions are a constant topic of change and concern for many people. Across the UK, the Government is consistently tracking, reporting and implementing changes to decrease our impact on the environment as individuals.

Analysing the data collected between 1800 and 2020, we have looked closely at the emissions created per person yearly to assess how things have changed. Crucially, we also look into why the changes occurred and what trends we can see that contribute to lower emissions.

Key findings:

  • The industrial revolution and Victorian advancements spark a huge 100-year increase in emissions.
  • The effect of World Wars saw a fluctuating downturn until 1945.
  • Technology booms in the 50s and 60s, increasing power consumption and emissions.
  • Extreme social struggles and strikes in the 80s saw coal production dip.
  • The 90s ignited reform of political and social opinion on climate change, putting the world's health at the forefront.

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Looking at the data, it is clear that emissions have made many stark turns throughout the last 200 years. To understand more about these changes, we need to look at what life in the UK was like during those years, what factors could drive an increase in emissions and what would cause them to fall. Whether this is due to social, economic or technological change, it’s crucial to our future efforts to examine past trends.

We can identify 4 distinct increases and 4 declines in the data. In our complete analysis below, we only cover these distinct periods. We acknowledge that some anomalous points within the timeline do not fit the overall trend (in the 1880s and around the 1920s). For our study, we will discount these and only review overarching data trends to propose the most likely period-specific changes.

1806 - 1820

The first noticeable changes are seen between 1800 and 1820. In this short time, although carbon emissions are low per person (from 2-3 tonnes), there is a noticeable rise to 1806 followed by a quick, steady fall to 1820.

The first wave of the Industrial Revolution in Britain changed how the country manufactured products and how people worked and affected living conditions. Although factories and industrialisation were in early development, the impact of new machinery and industrial pollution was being countered by more enormous social changes.

1820 - 1920

This period sees the largest, most significant emissions incline. This is not surprising, however, when you study what was changing in Britain at the time.

New machine inventions, bigger and better production, and more factories mean tonnes more emissions. In the early 1800s, coal was king, and of course, no one was concerned yet about what this meant for the planet. When burned, up to 99% of the fuel produced from coal is converted into CO2, so when you consider that most things were powered by coal in this period, it is easy to see why this spike occurs.

There are some other notable events during this time, though. In 1812, the UK's gas industry began distributing gas to people's homes through underground pipes. This increased the ability for families to use gas lights and heat their homes. The world’s first coal-fired power station was also opened in 1882 in London.

Although this period spans 100 years, and many things have changed and developed since then, we can confidently assume that the environmental effects here are directly linked to landmark advances in innovation, industry, and the scientific field. 

1920 - 1945

Between 1920 and 1945, emissions levels per person fluctuated, but the overarching pattern was one of decline. During these 25 years, Britain recovered from the First World War and then fought through the Second World War. This makes some sense of the uneven emissions patterns because these events affected everyday life.

1945 - 1971

As the Second World War ended in 1945, the emissions data rose again and continued steadily until the early 1970s.

This is a time of rebuilding, picking up where the country left off and advancing electricity use and new technologies. The 50s saw a lot of new technology and production techniques emerge. This included new plastics and materials for creating clothing, furniture and durable items.

This was a period of transformation, but with lots of new technology and travel options comes increased use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions—something the country was not yet tuned into.

1971 - 1984

The next downturn in emissions covers a very short period of around 13 years. There could be differing views on what made this happen, but we should note two significant things.

In 1972, the UK joined the European Union (EU). This meant that the country had to align its environmental laws with those set by the EU, which would affect many of its existing practices. Laws and policies would cover pollution, waste, air and water quality, conservation, climate change and environmental impact. These laws would help reform how Britain approached its climate responsibilities up until today.

The second significant factor for this period is the current prime minister's impact on the country. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher implemented privatisation reforms within the trade industry and abolished unions, which started a year-long miner strike. This directly impacted less fossil fuel sales, less economic money, and countless families living in poverty.

With less coal production and availability, it can be speculated that emissions levels would be down. When you combine this with families in need, there will be fewer emissions due to the lack of ability to pay bills and spend on those things which use more power.

1985 - 1991

In 1986, British Gas was formed. This resulted from Thatcher’s implementation of the Gas Act 1986, which privatised the gas sector and allowed individuals to become shareholders. This, in turn, boosted the company’s capabilities and was, at the time, the only company that could supply gas to UK homes.

This slight boost in carbon emissions seems to result from more movements within the manufacturing industry, but it’s unclear what caused this spike. It may be due to a period of recovery after the hardship of the strikes.

1991 - 2018

Our final data strand represents a steady decline in emissions from the beginning of the 1990s up to the latest data on record in 2018.

This period of 27 years includes a lot of change, both within technology, political policy and public opinion. We know that environmental law has begun to effect change, but as more renewable options come forward, there is also a shift in attitude.

Landmark acts were created in this period, including The Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Environment Act 1995, which developed regulation guidance for environmental management and pollution control. Later, The Kyoto Protocol 1997, the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Paris Agreement 2015 further implemented targets for reducing emissions and setting goals to reduce the planet's temperature.

According to studies, reductions in emissions during this period also come from the ability for more people to use renewable energy sources or opt for lower emissions power such as gas instead of coal. Switching to gas was a more favoured choice in the 90s because it is a cleaner, cheaper fuel source.

Reduced electricity consumption is also vital, as technological advancements have improved the efficiency of large domestic appliances like dishwashers and small everyday objects like lightbulbs. Home insulations and efficient heating systems also contribute to less energy consumption as homes can retain heat for longer.

Transport is also much more efficient than in previous years, with better fuel economy, more efficient engines and cleaner fuel options.

Current Scenario

It is optimistic that the emissions levels since the 90s have declined, and UK emissions are predicted to fall further. The UK Government aims to phase out coal use by 2025 and reach a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050. With increased political efforts to raise awareness and implement significant energy changes, we can all hope to see more of the same in the future.

For instance, the UK's commitment to reducing emissions, as outlined in the Office for National Statistics report, includes ambitious targets like the sixth Carbon Budget. This aims for a 77% reduction in emissions by 2035 compared to 1990. This means that the commitment underscores the importance of transitioning to renewable energy sources like solar power and improving energy efficiency in homes and businesses.


As of 2022, the per capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the United Kingdom stood at 4.7 metric tons. This figure represents a significant challenge and an opportunity for reduction by adopting renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures.

For instance, replacing older windows with new, energy-efficient ones that meet current standards can save homeowners up to £395 per year off their energy bills and significantly reduce CO2 emissions. Upgrading to modern triple glazing can prevent heat loss, which is responsible for a substantial portion of a home's carbon footprint.

The same can be said for solar panels, which significantly and dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. By 2050, it's forecasted that solar power could supply between 14% to 22% or more of electric power, which is vital in decarbonizing the power sector.

On the other hand, heat pumps and boilers are another effective solution for reducing household CO2 emissions. Since heat pumps use electricity, their carbon footprint depends on the source of the electricity. With the UK's increasing shift towards renewable energy, heat pumps offer a low-carbon alternative to traditional fossil fuel-based heating systems.

These measures contribute to the global effort to combat climate change and offer economic benefits to homeowners through energy savings. As the UK aims to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the role of renewable energy and energy efficiency becomes increasingly crucial.

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