Reaching Net Zero in the UK

In 2019, the UK Government and the devolved administrations committed to the Net Zero target as recommended by the Committee on Climate Change. Reaching net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions requires extensive changes across the economy, but the foundations are in place. Major infrastructure decisions need to be made in the near future and quickly implemented. These changes are unprecedented in their overall scale, but large-scale transitions have been achieved successfully in the UK before, such as the natural gas switchover in the 1970s or the switch to digital broadcasting in the 2000s.

What changed are needed?

  • resource and energy efficiency, that reduce demand for energy across the economy
  • societal choices that lead to a lower demand for carbon-intensive activities
  • extensive electrification, particularly of transport and heating, supported by a major expansion of renewable and other low-carbon power generation
  • development of a hydrogen economy to service demands for some industrial processes, for energy-dense applications in long-distance HGVs and ships, and for electricity and heating in peak periods
  • carbon capture and storage (CCS) in industry, with bioenergy (for GHG removal from the atmosphere), and very likely for hydrogen and electricity production.

It must be vital to the whole of government and to every level of government in the UK. Overall, a well-managed transition can be achieved and lives can be improved. People can benefit from better physical and mental health, an improved environment and, crucially, a reduced exposure to climate risks.

Current progress

UK emissions were 44% below 1990 levels in 2018, largely due to progress reducing emissions in electricity generation, waste and in the industrial sector. The first (2008-12) and the second carbon budget (2013-17) have been met and the UK is on track to meet the third (2018-22) carbon budget, but is not on track to meet the fourth, which covers the period 2023-27 or the fifth, which covers (2028-32). Crucially, these budgets were set against the previous target of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. The new Net-Zero target (100% reduction by 2050) means that progress will need to accelerate.

  • In the 2019 Progress Report:
    • Over the past year, the Government has delivered just 1 of 25 critical policies needed to get emissions reductions back on track.
    • The Committee also monitor indicators of underlying progress such as improvements to insulation of buildings and the market share of electric vehicles. Only seven out of 24 of these were on track in 2018.
    • The Government’s own projections demonstrate that its policies and plans are insufficient to meet the fourth or fifth carbon budgets (covering 2023-2027 and 2028-2032). This policy gap has widened in the last year as an increase in the projection of future emissions outweighed the impact of new policies.

Reaching net-zero emissions requires an annual rate of emissions reduction (15 MtCO2e per year, 3% of 2018 emissions) that is 50% higher than under the UK’s previous 2050 target and 30% higher than achieved on average since 1990. This is an indication of how substantial the step up in action must be to cut emissions in every sector.