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What is The United Kingdomʼs pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C?

In brief

This is a summary of the most important findings of our analysis. Get a brief overview over the most important figures and entry points into the various parts of the in depth analysis.

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Ambition gap

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The United Kingdomʼs total GHG emissions

excl. LULUCF MtCO₂e/yr

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Displayed values
Reference year
−120 %−100 %−80 %−60 %−40 %−20 %0 %200020202040206012345
  • 1.5°C compatible pathways
  • Middle of the 1.5°C compatible range
  • Current policy projections
  • 1.5°C emissions range
  • Historical emissions
Legend
  1. 1
    1.5°C emissions level
    −75 %
  2. 2
    NDC
    −68 %
  3. 3
    Ambition gap
    −7 %
  4. 4
    Net zero GHG incl. BECCS excl. LULUCF and novel CDR
    2061
  5. 5
    Reference year
    1990
Key messages

In December 2020, the UK submitted its NDC target of at least a 68% reduction in domestic emissions from 1990 levels by 2030, a significant improvement compared to its previous domestic emission reduction target of 57% below 1990 levels by 2030. This target would put the country on a domestic action pathway that is 1.5°C compatible. Furthermore, on April 20 the UK announced its goal to cut its emissions by 78% by 2035 below 1990 levels, including for the first-time international shipping and aviation emissions.

1 UK Government. UK becomes first major economy to pass net zero emissions law. (2019).

2 UK Government. 2018 UK greenhouse gas emissions: final figures – data tables. (2020).

3 UK Government. Digest of UK Energy Statistics 2020: Electricity. (2020).

4 UK Government. Updated Energy and Emissions Projections 2019: Annex J Total Electricity Generation by Source. (2020).

5 UK Government. Digest of UK Energy Statistics 2020: Main Chapters and Annexes A to D dataset. (2020).

6 UK Government. Digest of UK Energy Statistics 2013: Annex I (Energy Balance: Net Calorific Values). (2020).

7 UK Government. Updated Energy and Emissions Projections 2019: Annex A Greenhouse gas emissions by source. (2020).

8 UK Government. UK becomes first major economy to pass net zero emissions law. (2019).

9 UK Committee on Climate Change. Letter: International aviation and shipping and net zero. (2019).

10 Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy. Energy Trends March 2021. (2021).

11 Edwardes-Evans, H. UK to open new CFD auction for onshore wind, solar projects. S&P Global Platts (2020).

12 While global cost-effective pathways assessed by the IPCC Special Report 1.5°C provide useful guidance for an upper-limit of emissions trajectories for developed countries, they underestimate the feasible space for such countries to reach net zero earlier. The current generation of models tend to depend strongly on land-use sinks outside of currently developed countries and include fossil fuel use well beyond the time at which these could be phased out, compared to what is understood from bottom-up approaches. The scientific teams which provide these global pathways constantly improve the technologies represented in their models – and novel CDR technologies are now being included in new studies focused on deep mitigation scenarios meeting the Paris Agreement. A wide assessment database of these new scenarios is not yet available; thus, we rely on available scenarios which focus particularly on BECCS as a net-negative emission technology. Accordingly, we do not yet consider land-sector emissions (LULUCF) and other CDR approaches which developed countries will need to implement in order to counterbalance their remaining emissions and reach net zero GHG are not considered here due to data availability.

13 In analysed global-least cost pathways assessed by the IPCC Special Report 1.5°C, the energy sector assumes already a certain amount of carbon dioxide removal technologies, in this case bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

A fair share contribution to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions compatible with the Paris Agreement would require the UK to go further than its domestic target, and provide substantial support for emission reductions to developing countries on top of its domestic reductions.

In 2019, the UK amended its Climate Change Act to update its 2050 GHG emissions target from an 80% reduction below 1990 levels to net zero GHG by 2050. While the country does not provide details on the level of sinks it aims at to balance the remaining positive emissions, the net zero emission scenarios provided by the Climate Change Commission indicate a projected LULUCF sink of between -12 to -38 MtCO2e by 2050.

Paris Agreement compatible net zero pathways show that 2050 emissions should reach around -17 to 56 MtCO2e, excluding LULUCF but including BECCS. Remaining positive emissions will need to be balanced with carbon dioxide removal approaches.1,12,13 While global cost-effective pathways assessed by the IPCC Special Report 1.5°C provide useful guidance for an upper-limit of emissions trajectories for developed countries such as the UK, they underestimate the feasible space for such countries to reach net zero earlier.

Most 1.5°C compatible scenarios analysed in our study show renewable energy in primary energy demand reaching three to four times its 2017 levels by 2050.

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Key messages

The UK has made significant inroads into decarbonising its power sector, having almost phased out coal power completely, however considerable natural gas generation remains.

Phasing out the remaining coal within the next four years, and natural gas by 2039 at the latest, is necessary to be aligned with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C temperature goal.

A 1.5°C compatible trajectory for electricity generation requires an 84% share of renewable energy by 2030, compared to the 37% share seen in 2019.

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Key power sector benchmarks

Renewables shares and year of zero emissions power Including the use of BECCS

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Current targets
Required targets
2024
  1. 2024 Coal phase-out
2030
  1. 2030 71 to 84% Renewable share
2039
  1. 2039-2041 Zero emissions power
2050
  1. 2050 96 to 99% Renewable share

Footnotes