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Ambition gap

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

How to citeLast update: March 2022

1.5°C compatible pathways

The UK’s NDC target to cut emissions by at least 68% below 1990 levels by 2030 would bring its domestic emissions pathway in line with a 1.5°C compatible warming limit of the Paris Agreement. Our analysis shows a similar level of emissions reductions (68% below 1990 levels excluding LULUCF) is required for the UK target to be Paris Agreement compatible. This equates to a 2030 emissions level of 251 MtCO₂e.

Under current policies, the UK would miss its current 2030 emissions reduction target, indicating there is a need to strengthen policies across the UK economy.7 Recent announcements targeting higher renewable energy capacity and a ban on sales of fossil fuel vehicles by 2030 are the kind of interventions needed across other sectors such as industry and buildings. Despite recent announcements targeting these sectors, policies remain insufficient.

Long term pathway

In 2019, the UK legislated its commitment to reach net zero GHG emissions by 2050, strengthening its previous 2050 target of an 80% reduction below 1990 levels.8 While the target does not provide specific details on the level of remaining positive emissions the country would aim for, Paris Agreement agreement compatible pathways show that the country’s remaining emissions should by 2050 be between -57 to 61 MtCO₂e excluding LULUCF but including negative CO₂ emissions (in this case BECCS have been assumed).30 These emissions will need to be balanced by the deployment of land sinks or other carbon dioxide removal approaches.29 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.

The UK’s 2050 net zero target was recently confirmed as including emissions from international shipping or aviation, making the UK a global frontrunner in this regard. The UK target is strengthened at the regional level with Scotland targeting net zero GHG emissions by 2045, and Wales targeting a 90% reduction by 2050 below 1990 levels. Remaining emissions from the agriculture and industry sectors will need to be compensated by carbon dioxide removal technologies such as BECCS and direct air carbon capture (DACC).

A higher penetration of renewable energy would avoid a high reliance on carbon dioxide removals. The two 1.5°C compatible scenarios highlighted in this analysis that do not rely on negative emissions technologies project either a more rapid and widespread deployment of renewable energy technologies (94% share of electricity generation by 2040), or a drastic reduction in overall energy demand (a reduction in primary energy demand of roughly half below 2019 level by 2040). This demonstrates that with urgent investment in, and policy support for, renewable energy deployment and energy efficiency measures, a reliance on these unproven technologies in the future can be avoided.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 National Grid ESO. Record-breaking 2020 becomes greenest year for Britain’s electricity. (2021).

16 UK Government. Energy and emissions projections: Net Zero Strategy baseline (partial interim update December 2021) Annex J: Total electricity generation by source. (2022).

17 UK Government. UK 2021 Common Reporting Format (CRF) Table. (2021).

18 UK National Audit Office. Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme. (2021).

19 UK House of Commons. Energy efficiency: building towards net zero. (2019).

20 UK National Audit Office. Low carbon heating of homes and businesses and the Renewable Heat Incentive. (2018).

21 Gabbatiss, J. In-depth Q&A: How will the UK’s ‘heat and buildings strategy’ help achieve net-zero? CarbonBrief, (2021).

22 UK Government. Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy. (2021).

23 UK Government. UK Hydrogen Strategy (2021).

24 S&P Global. Blue hydrogen stirs debate as chair of UK lobby group resigns over skepticism. (2021).

25 Howarth, R. W. & Jacobson, M. Z. How green is blue hydrogen? Energy Science & Engineering ese3.956 (2021) doi:10.1002/ESE3.956.

26 Climate Analytics. Why gas is the new coal. (2021).

27 Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy. The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. 1–38 (2020).

28 UK Government. Transport Decarbonisation Plan. (2021).

29 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.

30 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).

Methodology

The United Kingdomʼs total GHG emissions

excl. LULUCF MtCO₂e/yr

Displayed values
Reference year
−120%−100%−80%−60%−40%−20%0%19902010203020502070
Net zero GHG excl. LULUCF*
2067
Reference year
1990
1.5°C emissions level
−75%
NDC
−68%
2035 target
−84%
Ambition gap
−8%
  • 1.5°C compatible pathways
  • Middle of the 1.5°C compatible range
  • Current policy projections
  • 1.5°C emissions range
  • Historical emissions
2030 emissions levels
Current policy projections
NDC
1.5°C emissions level
Ref. year 1990
791MtCO₂e/yr

Energy system transformation

The share of fossil fuels in the UK’s total primary energy demand fell to 77% in 2019 from 90% ten years prior.6,7 In 1.5°C compatible pathways, the share of fossil fuels in primary energy demand should be reduced to around 60-70% by 2030, whereas unabated fossil fuels in the power sector should fall from 2019 levels (43%) to 12-17% in 2030. Coal as a power source must be completely phased out by 2030.

The current remaining use of natural gas in the power and building sectors, and oil in the transport sector, present a significant challenge for the government, and requires more ambitious policies.

Methodology

The United Kingdomʼs primary energy mix

petajoule per year

Scaling
SSP1 Low CDR reliance
20192030204020504 0006 0008 000
SSP1 High CDR reliance
20192030204020504 0006 0008 000
Low Energy Demand
20192030204020504 0006 0008 000
High Energy Demand - Low CDR reliance
20192030204020504 0006 0008 000
  • Negative emissions technologies via BECCS
  • Unabated fossil
  • Renewables incl. Biomass
  • Nuclear and/or fossil with CCS

The United Kingdomʼs total CO₂ emissions

excl. LULUCF MtCO₂/yr

−200020040060019902010203020502070
  • 1.5°C compatible pathways
  • 1.5°C emissions range
  • Middle of the 1.5°C compatible range
  • Historical emissions

1.5°C compatible emissions benchmarks

Key emissions benchmarks of Paris compatible Pathways for The United Kingdom. The 1.5°C compatible range is based on the Paris Agreement compatible pathways from the IPCC SR1.5 filtered with sustainability criteria. The median (50th percentile) to 5th percentile and middle of the range are provided here. Relative reductions are provided based on the reference year.

Reference year
Indicator
1990
Reference year
2019
2030
2040
2050
Year of net zero GHG
incl. BECCS excl. LULUCF and novel CDR
Total GHG
Megatonnes CO₂ equivalent per year
791
449
194
176 to 249
72
35 to 130
44
−57 to 61
2067
2044
Relative to reference year in %
−75%
−78 to −69%
−91%
−96 to −84%
−95%
−107 to −92%
Total CO₂
MtCO₂/yr
596
365
148
130 to 203
26
4 to 87
1
−84 to 22
2051
2041 to 2057
Relative to reference year in %
−75%
−78 to −66%
−96%
−99 to −85%
−100%
−114 to −96%

Footnotes