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

How to citeLast update: March 2022

Emissions profile

The UK has made considerable progress decarbonising its economy, with total GHG emissions in 2018 at 42% below 1990 levels.2 The bulk of these emissions reductions has come from the power (-62% since 1990) and industry sectors (-49%), whereas transport (-3%), agriculture (-16%), and buildings (-18%) have lagged behind.

The steep emissions reductions in the power sector have come primarily from a shift away from coal-fired power, which supplied just 2% of total generation in 2019.3 Between 2012 and 2019, coal generation fell by 95%. This has coincided with, and been enabled by, a steep increase in generation from renewable sources (+210%, 2012-2019).

Since 2016, transport emissions have constituted the largest share of the UK’s total GHG emissions (27.5% in 2018).2

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).

The United Kingdomʼs current GHG emissions

MtCO₂e/yr

Displayed values

By sector

  • Transport
  • Buildings
  • Industry (energy use)
  • Fugitive emissions
  • Other
  • Agriculture
  • Industry (processes)
  • Waste
  • LULUCF
Energy (74%)0

By gas

  • CO₂
  • CH₄
  • N₂O
  • Other
080%0

Sectors by gas

Energy
097%0
Agriculture
060%0
Industry (processes)
00

Energy system

The steady decline of coal-fired generation in the UK’s power sector has helped halve total emissions from this sector since 2008, and the country’s last coal plant is now scheduled for closure before October 1, 2024.22 While generation from natural gas is considerably lower now than ten years ago (-25%), it remains considerably higher than in 2013 (+38%), indicating it has also replaced coal-fired generation in recent years.5 Phasing out the UK’s considerable remaining natural gas power capacity is now the main hurdle for decarbonising the power sector, and policy changes in this direction would be beneficial for the necessary transformation.

The share of fossil fuels in the UK’s primary energy supply remains high, at 77% in 2019, though it is 13%-points lower than a decade ago.6,7 Over this time, the UK has become a net-importer of petroleum products despite its considerable oil production and refining industry. A continued and considerable reliance on natural gas has perpetuated high levels of imports. Transitioning away from natural gas in the power and buildings sectors, and oil in the transport sector, will not only contribute to the decarbonisation of the UK economy, but will also help the UK to achieve energy independence.

Targets and commitments

Economy-wide targets

Target type

Base year emissions target

NDC target

  • At least 68% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Market mechanism

  • The Climate Change Act allows for a limited use of carbon market units for each budget period. For the current third carbon budget (2018-2022), the limit on the use of carbon units is for the equivalent of 55 MtCO₂e.

Long-term target

  • Net zero GHG emissions by 2050 (incl. LULUCF).
  • Scotland: net zero GHG emissions by 2045.
  • Scotland: 75% below 1990 levels by 2030.
  • Wales: 95% reduction below 1990 levels by 2050.

Sector coverage

EnergyTransportIndustryWasteAgricultureLULUCF

Greenhouse gas coverage

CO₂CH₄NF₃HFCsN₂OSF₆

Sectoral targets

Power

  • Coal phase-out from the power sector by 2024.
  • 40 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030.

LULUCF

  • 30,000 hectares of trees planted per year by 2025.

Transport

  • Ban on sale of fossil fuel vehicles by 2030, 2035 for hybrids.
  • Vehicle emission standards: 95g CO₂/km for new passenger vehicles and 147g CO₂/km for vans starting from 2020.

Footnotes