Perhaps because Margaret Thatcher, the late Conservative prime minister and a chemist by training, was one of the first global leaders to warn about the issue, the U.K.’s decarbonization efforts have enjoyed relative cross-party consensus.
It also helps greatly that the country’s climate policies are underpinned by the world’s first climate change law, introduced in 2008, and a Climate Change Committee (CCC) that holds the government to account on its targets and progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The U.K. aims to cut its emissions by 68% below 2013 levels by 2030, and currently it is 43% of the way toward achieving that target. To reach the 2030 goal, it needs to cut around 18,000 kilotonnes a year. In 2019, emissions fell by 13,566 kilotonnes, giving the country a 75% Earth Index score, according to new Corporate Knights report. Though the pace of cuts has accelerated.
The heavy lifting has come to date from the power sector, which has an Earth Index score of 330%. “The U.K. has made a concerted effort over the past decade to retire its coal capacity and replace it with low carbon power generation – principally wind (onshore and increasingly offshore),” says the CCC.
The pace of reductions in the power sector will inevitably slow, as coal has been almost completely removed from the energy mix, although the grid will continue to decarbonize as more renewables come onto the network – particularly offshore wind, where the U.K. is one of the leading markets globally and where costs have come down considerably in recent years.
Policy inconsistencies have meant that other sectors have been notably less successful to date in cutting emissions. The reversal of policies to encourage carbon capture and storage and more efficient buildings were particularly damaging for fossil fuels (which scores 26% in the index) and buildings (36%). The worst-performing sectors were waste, with a score of just 14%, and agriculture, with a score of –13%. Deep reductions in agriculture will happen only if the U.K. introduces “actions to change farming practices and consumer behaviour to release agricultural land for uses that reduce emissions and sequester carbon,” the CCC says via email.
With emission reductions well under way in the power sector, other sectors will have to play a bigger role in future, particularly industry, buildings and transport.
The U.K.’s net-zero strategy should provide a framework for whole-economy decarbonization, but it needs to be backed up by credible plans, according to the House of Lords. The U.K. carbon market will help to hasten the switch from fossil fuels to low-carbon sources, but in the short-term, the biggest contribution is set to come from transport, where emissions in 2019 fell at less than half the rate required (46%).
Progress is expected to accelerate after the government brought forward its plans to phase out the sale of petrol and diesel cars to 2030, from its original target of 2040, and although EV sales are rising fast, much still needs to be done to install new charging infrastructure.
The U.K. has made significant progress in decarbonizing its power sector, mainly by moving away from coal power to renewable sources. It now needs to do the same in other parts of the economy.
There is still a huge amount of work to do. The dangers of falling behind are illustrated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly calling for a temporary “climate change pass” for the gas industry in March, to allow the West to wean itself off Russian gas supplies. Others are calling for the U.K. to increase its offshore wind ambitions to bolster its energy security.
Mike Scott writes about business, finance, clean energy and sustainability.