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Is the UK on track to meet its climate commitments?

The UK government has set ambitious emissions reduction targets to help tackle climate change. But it is currently falling short, and more funding and policy interventions will be needed to reach the ultimate objective of net zero.

In November, the signatories of the Paris Agreement will meet in Glasgow to set out their targets for reducing national and global emissions of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change. The UK government, which will host the meeting, has set ambitious targets to reduce emissions this decade by 68% relative to emissions in 1990 – and by 78% by 2035.

Given this target and the UK’s claim of climate leadership, as set out in relation to the country’s COP26 presidency, this article examines if the government is on track to meet its own pledges and assesses whether the claimed mantle of leadership is valid.

Based on current policy commitments, the UK is not on track to meet its 2030 nationally determined contribution (NDC) target set in 2020. Emissions projections produced by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy expect greenhouse gas emissions to fall by 52% (relative to 1990) and the Climate Change Committee believes that the UK is off-track to meet its 2030 carbon budget (which is currently less ambitious than the 2030 NDC target set out last year).

Figure 1: UK emissions to date and projected reduction to 2030

Source: BEIS (2020)

In the past 12 months, the government has released several strategies to reduce emissions in key sectors, including transport, industry and hydrogen production. But excluding the phasing-out of petrol and diesel cars in 2030, no new policies that would significantly reduce emissions have been announced or enacted. Given the limited timeframe between now and 2030, significantly more urgent action is needed if the UK is to live up to its mantle as a climate leader.

How have we reduced our emissions in the past?

The majority of emissions reduction since 1990 has occurred in the last ten years. Between 1990 and 2010, annual emissions fell by just 16%, and in the following decade by a further 30%.

This fall was primarily achieved through reductions in the industrial and power production sectors. In particular, the reduction between 2010 and 2020 has been driven by the switch from coal to gas for electricity generation and the growth in renewable electricity. Other sectors, in particular road transport and the services sector, have seen no change in emissions since 1990.

A number of policies have contributed to the decline in emissions in the last decade. Among them are European Union regulations such as the Emissions Trading System (ETS), which sets a cap on total emissions through the allocation of allowances that can then be traded between companies, and the Large Combustion Plant Directive, which sets emissions limits on power plants. There are also UK-specific policies, such as the Carbon Price Floor, which provides a ‘top up’ on the ETS allowance price to drive greater decarbonisation.

It is not possible to know which, if any, single policy is responsible for emissions reductions to date and a Grantham Research Institute explainer puts it down to a ‘successful combination’ of policies. Further complications include geo-political factors such as the shale gas boom in the United States and the fall in gas prices, which allowed gas and coal to achieve price parity and facilitated the growth in gas as a fuel for power generation.

While reducing reliance on coal is critical to meeting the UK’s decarbonisation targets, further research in this area suggests that carbon pricing alone will be insufficient to achieve the ‘deep decarbonisation’ required to meet the 2030 and 2050 targets.

How is the UK government planning to meet its own targets?

In November 2020, the government released a ten-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, which aims to mobilise £12 billion in government spending to decarbonise the UK economy.

While the plan hits many of the key themes required to decarbonise – such as expanding renewable energy production (point 1) and removing gas boilers from homes (point 7) – it fails to capture adequately the scale and speed of decarbonisation required this decade.

Since the plan's release, no new policy announcements have been made. What’s more, the government scrapped the Green Homes Grant (which provided up to £5,000 towards the cost of home energy efficiency improvements) just six months after it started, and admitted that only £4 billion of the £12 billion announced in the climate plan is new money.

The government is also heavily reliant on new technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, to allow the continued use of fossil fuels without releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The first two projects that will contribute to the government’s 2030 target are expected to be announced later this year. But even if the government’s target to capture 10 metric tons (Mt) of CO2 annually by 2030 is met, it will account for less than 3% of current emissions – a small contribution towards the 45% emissions cut that is required this decade.

Why is the government so slow to act?

If the UK meets its 2030 target, it would go a long way towards contributing to the 2050 net-zero ambition – the ultimate goal. But as we have seen above, based on the government’s own projections and the view of the Climate Change Committee, it is not on track to do so.

One explanation for this is that the government is not aware of the challenge it faces. In September 2020 (before the announcements for more ambitious 2030 and 2035 targets), the Institute for Government said that ‘there is little evidence that the government… confronted the enormous scale of the task ahead‘. The magnitude of the challenge can be summarised in three key points: time, scale and political buy-in.

  • Time: At COP26 in November, when the UK will formally set out its 2030 target, 2030 will be just over eight years away. During those eight years, the UK will need to halve its emissions (excluding a temporary reduction from Covid-19). Much of the large infrastructure required to decarbonise takes time to build. There is insufficient time to design and scale much of the new technology promoted by the government, such as carbon capture and storage. In addition, several existing low carbon technologies, such as nuclear power, will not be able to help meet the 2030 target due to how long the plants take to build.
  • Scale: Between 2010 and 2019, the UK installed 8.5 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind capacity. The government has committed to quadrupling this to 40GW in the next decade. Millions of homes also need to be retrofitted during this period. The government has committed to installing 600,000 heat pumps by 2028, although studies suggest that millions need to be installed annually to contribute to the government's target.
  • Political buy-in: Political will for climate action is hard to sustain, as first shown when the US Senate refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in the 1990s. Since the net-zero target was passed in 2019, policies to reduce emissions have faced an uphill battle. The Green Homes Grant was cancelled after just six months and recently an all-party parliamentary group has come out against one of the few meaningful policies implemented by the government: the ban on new all-petrol and diesel cars from 2030.

What else needs to be done?

The current net-zero pathway could be broadly described as that of minimal disruption. Under this approach, decarbonisation will happen gradually without any meaningful changes to most people’s lives. But the Climate Change Committee has shown that this trajectory will not meet the government’s own targets.

Emerging research also shows that the government’s approach, which is reliant on electrification, carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen, is not compatible with climate science. In the short term, the Climate Change Committee has shown that the government’s commitments are not compatible with its own targets, or the requirement to halve global emissions by 2030. Over the long term, the average transition rate for new energy technologies (such as renewable energy and carbon capture and storage) exceeds 90 years to reach full market saturation, three times the 30 years we have to reach net zero.

A whole economy approach to decarbonisation is needed. This means removing the incumbent benefits provided to the fossil fuel industry, including the £10 billion in subsidies it receives annually. It also requires cancelling all proposed fossil fuel investments, such as the Cumbrian Coal Mine, and North Sea exploration, in line with recommendations made by the International Energy Agency.

There is no single pathway that the UK must follow to achieve its climate targets, and new proposals are emerging all the time. Market-based mechanisms such as taxes and trading schemes have lost some of their momentum, but they are still methods for continued decarbonisation.

At the other end of the spectrum, the energy standards included in President Biden’s American Jobs Plan offer an approach through regulation. The plan, now discussed as part of the Budget Reconciliation Bill, would introduce a programme of payments and penalties for utility companies to increase rapidly the amount of renewable energy they provide.

There are also other less defined but promising potentially approaches emerging. ‘Carbon quantitative easing’ (QE) seeks to replace current forms of QE with payments for activities that reduce the amount of carbon emitted or that sequester carbon. Alternatively, Mariana Mazzucato’s ‘mission economy’ calls for an ‘Apollo-like’ approach to climate change, which would see governments move away from a cost-benefit consideration of climate investment to a ‘mission first’, government-led approach following a model akin to the Apollo 11 moon landing project.

Regardless of the eventual approach, there are several key elements identified in current research that need to be built into UK policy:

  • Mitigation needs to happen fast: As the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shows, we need to halve planetary emissions this decade to avoid the worst effects of climate change. To achieve the domestic 2030 target, emissions need to fall by about 6%.
  • Adaptation needs to be built into all mitigation actions: Warming of 1.5°C is now expected to happen by 2040, bringing the numerous consequences of a warmer world, from declining biodiversity to rising sea levels and extreme heat. As a result, all mitigation actions must take this into account. For example, investment in electricity transmission must be resilient to the increase in forest fires through which transmission wires often run (and can cause).
  • New technology cannot be relied on to save us: New technology, such as carbon capture and storage, takes time to be developed and implemented at scale. The 30-year timeframe to achieve net zero provides very limited time to build these technologies, which have historically taken a long time to deploy, despite almost 20 years of policy support. Moreover, investment in innovation and new technologies has slowed across the G7 over the last 10 years (see Figure 2), further highlighting flaws in the ‘techno-optimist’ argument that we will be able to innovate our way out of the climate crisis.
  • Aggregate demand reduction needs to be taken seriously as a mitigation action: Policies that limit the amount of total energy we use – such as reducing the number of flights or using trains instead of cars – need to be central to future climate policy.

Figure 2: Environmental technology patents as a percentage of national total, G7

Source: OECD


The UK government has set itself ambitious targets that are consistent with the science, but we are currently way off-track in meeting them. Further emissions reduction will require a greater level of policy and financial intervention than we have seen in recent decades. The government’s response to Covid-19 has demonstrated its willingness to break with the laissez-faire economic doctrine that has governed politics for the last 40 years. A similar approach is now required to respond to the climate crisis.

Urgent action is needed to get us back on track and with COP26 just around the corner, now is the time to act. For the UK to be a true climate leader, it must break with the previous pathway of least disruption and begin to instigate stringent policies that will bring meaningful and fast-paced changes.

We are starting to see initial glimpses of this in responses to the pandemic. The growth in low-traffic neighbourhoods and the increase in bike usage are positive developments (if happening too slowly). Initiatives such as these also have a number of secondary benefits, including increased safety for children and more outdoor space for families and local residents.

This illustrates the other side to being a climate leader. Mitigation action can bring significant benefits and, for the UK, a first-mover advantage. While it may be disruptive, none of it will compare with the disruption we will all face if we do not get to net zero in time.

Where can I find out more?

  • The Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget Report sets out the UK’s current policy positions and their shortcomings.
  • The UK FIRES Absolute Zero report highlights the limitations in the UK’s current ‘techno-optimistic’ approach to net zero.
  • For a discussion of where we go from here, framed within the green growth versus degrowth debate. Noah Smith’s piece arguing against degrowth sets out the two sides well.

Who are experts on this question?

  • Julia Steinberger – on living well with less energy
  • Adam Tooze – on the history and economics of energy transitions
  • Kate Raworth – on balancing social requirements with ecological limits
  • Emily Shuckburgh – on COP26
Author: Sam Stephenson
Image credit: Matt Seymour on Unsplash
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