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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 Climate Change Committee. 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 changes 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 48% below 1990 levels in 2020. This reduction reflects the impact COVID-19 had on emissions in 2020, much of which is not expected to be permanent. The fall in emissions between 2019 and 1990 was 40%.

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 (at least 100% reduction by 2050) means that progress will need to accelerate.

  • In the 2021 Progress Report:
    • Lockdown measures led to a record decrease in UK emissions in 2020 of 13% from the previous year. Sustained reductions in emissions require sustained Government leadership, underpinned by a strong Net Zero Strategy:
      • A Net Zero Test would ensure that all Government policy, including planning decisions, is compatible with UK climate targets.
      • An ambitious Heat and Buildings Strategy, that works for consumers, is urgently needed.
      • Delayed plans on surface transport, aviation, hydrogen, biomass and food must be delivered.
      • Plans for the power sector, industrial decarbonisation, the North Sea, peat and energy from waste must be strengthened.
      • The big cross-cutting challenges of public engagement, fair funding and local delivery must be tackled.

The progress of Departments against our recommendations can be seen below: