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 2020 Progress Report:
    • COVID-19 is a public health crisis; our recovery from it will reshape how we tackle the climate crisis. Choices in the coming months must steer a recovery that drives vital new economic activity, accelerates our transition to Net Zero and strengthens our resilience to the impacts of climate change. UK domestic climate ambition can be the basis for UK international leadership in 2021, in the Presidency of the delayed UN climate summit in Glasgow (COP26) and in the G7 Presidency.
    • Overall the Government has only fully achieved two milestones out of the 31 set out in the 2019 Progress Report. However, partial progress has been made in 15 policy milestones which lie predominantly in the transport and industry sectors, while for others policy development is underway.
    • Progress is generally off-track in most sectors, with only four out of 21 of the indicators on track in 2019 (Table 4.1). This represents no change from the previous year where the same four of the 21 indicators were met. 14 of the indicators tracked have moved in the right direction since our last Progress Report, the remaining 7 are worse than the previous year (see red/green arrows in Table 4.1)

To achieve Net Zero, the UK needs to achieve an average emissions reduction of around 15.5 MtCO₂e per year over the next 30 years, similar to the 16 MtCO₂e achieved in 2019.