Skip to content

United Kingdom Sectors

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

How to citeLast update: March 2022
1.5°C aligned targets
Current targets

Power sector in 2030

The UK has seen the share of electricity generation provided by renewable sources increase dramatically in recent years, reaching an all-time high of 43% in 2020.10 This would need to roughly double to 84% in 2030 to ensure it is aligned with the 1.5°C temperature goal of the Paris Agreement. With excellent wind resources, particularly offshore, and a recent government commitment to reach 40 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030, the UK is set to achieve a high degree of renewable energy penetration.

A policy U-turn in early 2020 saw onshore wind and solar PV once again permitted to participate in renewable energy auctions from 2021, a welcome boost to these renewable energy sources.8 Government projections under current policies, which do not yet include the effect of the announced target of 40 GW of offshore wind by 2030, or the reversal on onshore wind and solar PV, show renewable energy generation reaching 56% in 2030.4 The 1.5°C compatible pathways analysed in this study demonstrate it is possible for the UK to reach 100% renewable energy penetration in the power sector by 2050.

Towards a fully decarbonised power sector

The UK’s strong performance to date in decarbonising its power sector, resulting in decreasing emissions intensity to roughly 180 gCO₂/kWh in 202015, compared to 691 gCO₂/kWh in 1990, will need to continue at pace if it is to achieve a 1.5°C compatible target of zero emissions by 2040.

With coal almost phased out already, efforts must be focused on rapidly reducing gas consumption to zero in the coming years. Under planned policies, the share of natural gas supply in the power sector only declines to 9% by 2040, demonstrating that this is an area that needs urgent action from the UK government.16

Pathways with faster reductions of unabated fossil fuel use and faster uptake of renewables with shares within the ranges above 80% by 2030 are able to achieve 1.5°C compatibility without the use of negative emissions technologies, such as BECCS.

Pathways with a slower transition from fossils to renewables typically see carbon removal technologies deployed at scale between 2040 and 2050. Given the uncertainty around the eventual commercial viability of these technologies, the safest option is to achieve zero emissions in the power sector within the next decade by rapidly scaling up generation from renewable energy technologies.

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 power mix

gigawatt

Scaling
Dimension
SSP1 Low CDR reliance
2019203020402050400600800
SSP1 High CDR reliance
2019203020402050400600800
Low Energy Demand
2019203020402050400600800
High Energy Demand - Low CDR reliance
2019203020402050400600800
  • Nuclear and/or fossil with CCS
  • Unabated fossil
  • Renewables incl. Biomass
  • Negative emissions technologies via BECCS

The United Kingdomʼs power sector emissions and carbon intensity

MtCO₂/yr

Unit
−200−100010020019902010203020502070
  • Historical emissions
  • Low Energy Demand
  • 100%RE
  • SSP1 Low CDR reliance
  • SSP1 High CDR reliance
  • High Energy Demand - Low CDR reliance

1.5°C compatible power sector benchmarks

Carbon intensity, renewable generation share, and fossil fuel generation share from illustrative 1.5°C pathways for The United Kingdom

Indicator
2019
2030
2040
2050
Decarbonised power sector by
Carbon intensity of power
gCO₂/kWh
210
50 to 60
0
−110 to −30
2038 to 2040
Relative to reference year in %
−75 to −72%
−101 to −100%
−151 to −112%
Indicator
2019
2030
2040
2050
Year of phase-out
Share of unabated coal
Percent
2
0
0
0
Share of unabated gas
Percent
41
12 to 17
0 to 1
0
2039 to 2040
Share of renewable energy
Percent
38
75 to 86
94 to 95
98 to 100
Share of unabated fossil fuel
Percent
44
12 to 17
0 to 1
0

Footnotes