Skip to content

In brief

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

How to citeLast update: March 2022

Economy wide

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, 2021 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.

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

Fair share

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 emission reduction target, and provide substantial financial or other support for emission reductions to developing countries on top of its domestic reductions.

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).

Net zero GHG

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.

2050 Ambition

Paris Agreement compatible net zero pathways show that 2050 emissions should reach around -57 to 61 MtCO₂e, excluding LULUCF but including negative CO₂ emissions (in this case BECCS has been assumed). Remaining positive emissions will need to be balanced with carbon dioxide removal approaches.1,29,30 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.

Decarbonisation

Most 1.5°C compatible scenarios analysed in our study show renewable energy in primary energy demand reaching three to four times its 2019 levels by 2050.

Sectors

Power

  • 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 at least a 75% share of renewable energy by 2030, compared to the 37% share seen in 2019.
Read full analysis

Buildings

  • Direct emissions from the buildings sector in 2019 were 17% below 1990 levels due primarily to a steep reduction in the use of solid fuels for heating, and despite increased consumption of natural gas.
  • Illustrative 1.5°C pathways show buildings’ direct CO₂ emissions reaching 44-48% below 2019 levels by 2030 and zero by 2050.
  • The recently released Buildings and Heat Strategy targeted a ban on all new gas boilers from 2035 and increased funding to encourage the uptake of heat pumps, though the funding is unlikely to be sufficient to achieve the government’s ambitious target of installing 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028.
Read full analysis

Transport

  • The UK’s largest emitting sector, transport emissions remain roughly at 1990 levels, and are projected to fall only slightly despite recently announced policies.
  • The UK government justifies its GBP 27 billion investment in upgrading and expanding the country’s strategic road network by a strong projected increase in use. However, independent modelling projects that 7-16% of car travel could be avoided by 2030 through modal shift, increasing to 12-34% by 2050.
  • Illustrative 1.5°C pathways show that direct CO₂ emissions from transport should fall by around a third below 2019 levels by 2030.
Read full analysis

Industry

  • Industry emissions have fallen by roughly half since 1990, when they were 162 MtCO₂e, due to a combination of efficiency improvements and sectoral decline.
  • Illustrative 1.5°C pathways show industry direct CO₂ emissions falling by at least 33% below 2019 levels by 2030, and the electrification rate increasing from its current 37% to 44% by 2030. The government’s targets are a two thirds reduction in total GHG emissions below 2018 levels by 2035 and a 90% reduction by 2050.
  • The UK’s Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy and Hydrogen Strategy both include a heavy reliance on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. The fact that CCS has not yet been commercially proven increases the risk of the UK not achieving its targets.
Read full analysis

Footnotes