UK greenhouse gas emissions: fast progress but not yet enough to meet future targets

21 June 2019
What was claimed

The UK has led the world by committing to “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Our verdict

The UK’s stated ambition to reduce emissions goes further than most other countries, and the UK is generally considered to be a world-leader in setting targets into law. A few other countries have set similar or more ambitious targets.

What was claimed

The UK has made huge progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Our verdict

The UK has exceeded its own targets in cutting emissions compared to 1990 levels, and has made bigger cuts than other G7 countries. But this isn’t expected to be enough to meet future targets.

“We have made huge progress in growing our economy and the jobs market while slashing emissions”

Theresa May, 12 June 2019

“The UK is already slipping away from its mid-term carbon targets of cutting emissions by 80% by 2050”

BBC News, 12 June 2019

"This is the government that has just led the world by committing to a zero carbon economy by 2050."

Philip Hammond, 20 June 2019

The government wants to set a new target to cut UK net greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” by 2050. The existing target is to cut emissions by 80% compared to 1990 levels. The government is following recommendations from the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC), made earlier this year.

“Net zero” means the UK emitting as much as it is removing from the environment (like by planting trees or carbon capture technology). So if this new proposed target were met, this “would effectively mean that the UK will end its contribution to global remissions in 2050”, according to the House of Commons Library.

Up until now the UK has been exceeding its own targets and reducing emissions faster than any other major advanced economy in the G7. But that progress isn’t fast enough at the moment to meet even the 80% target set by the Climate Change Act 2008.

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Progress on cutting emissions has been fast

Gross greenhouse gas emissions in the UK have been cut by about 44% since 1990, although those figures don’t include emissions from international aviation and shipping.

That’s a faster cut than any other G7 country over the same period.

Using comparable figures as far as 2016, the UK had reduced gross emissions by 41%, compared to 27% for Germany, 23% in Italy and 18% for France. Emissions were higher by 4% in Japan, 5% in the USA and 26% in Canada.

The CCC, which assesses the government’s progress against its targets as set out in the Climate Change Act, has described the UK’s record as:

“[T]he most substantial emissions reduction in the G7, over a period when economic growth was above the G7 average.

“The UK can rightly claim early leadership on decarbonisation and the governance framework to deliver it, but the Government must not be complacent. Market-led developments explain much of the fall since 1990: energy efficiency improvements, a shift from coal to gas in the power sector and a broader shift to less energy-intensive UK industry.”

Less coal, more gas and renewables have driven falling emissions

The key driver behind the UK’s recent reductions in emissions has been the rapid decline of coal power. In 2008, Coal provided 32% of energy generation in the UK. In 2018, it was 5%, and in recent months  there has been barely any coal-powered electricity generation. Coal is one of the most carbon-intensive forms of energy, so a shift away from that towards gas has driven a lot of the fall in emissions.

Gas has largely substituted coal energy in recent years, but there's also been sustained growth in wind and solar power in the last few years.

The CCC notes however that not all sectors have seen the same reductions in emissions - transport, for example, has seen emissions increases since 2012.

The UK is not on track to meet long-term targets

All that said, the UK’s progress against its climate change targets is expected to slip - at least based on the current policies that have been announced.

When it comes to measuring the UK’s progress against its targets, a measure of the UK’s “net” emissions is used, rather than the gross emissions figures we’ve been quoting above. This means taking into account emissions the UK removes from the atmosphere as well as what it’s putting out.

Before this week, the UK government was aiming to have net emissions down by 37% by 2020, 51% by 2025 and by 57% by 2030 (the third, fourth and fifth “carbon budgets”. Only the first of those three is expected to be met.

According to the latest government projections:

“The 2018 projections … suggest that we could deliver 95 per cent and 93 per cent of our required performance against 1990 levels, for the fourth and fifth carbon budgets respectively.”

The government cautions that while these projections account for current government policy, “many policies which will affect the 2020s and beyond have not yet been developed to the point at which they can be included in these projections”.

This latest announcement from the government makes the existing targets more ambitious, but it will need to be accompanied by explicit policies if the UK’s long-term projections are to be met.

Is a net zero commitment a world-beater?

In a speech at Mansion House disrupted by climate change protesters, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond remarked that the irony behind the protests was that the UK was leading the world in committing to emissions reductions.

The UK is certainly among very few countries that have made such a commitment. The Committee on Climate Change noted last month that the UK has been a “climate leader” across the world, setting the world’s first legally-binding long-term emissions targets in the 2008 Climate Change Act. It goes on:

“Setting and pursuing a UK net-zero GHG [greenhouse gas] target for 2050 will confirm the UK as a leader among the developed countries on climate action”

The UK doesn’t quite stand alone in this. The Committee notes examples in other countries of net-zero targets having been adopted, including in Sweden by 2045 and in Norway by 2030, although the commitments in other countries vary in how exactly they plan to count their emissions. More recently, Finland has also announced an intention to go net zero by 2035.

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