Can the UK meet its net zero targets?

Can the UK meet its net zero targets? The UK pledged to reach net zero by 2050. It is a legally binding target and it was reached with advice from the Climate Change Committee, the UK’s own independent climate advisory body (HM Government – PDF)

They have acknowledged that net zero does not equal absolute zero. This is because some industries would be difficult to decarbonise completely, e.g. aviation. But they have laid out ambitious target dates for reductions in emissions.

What is in the UK Government Net Zero Strategy?

At COP 26 in Glasgow in October 2021, the government outlined the target reductions and the dates it needs to meet them, in order to reach net zero by 2050:

  • 2025 – 55% reduction (excluding international aviation and shipping emissions)
  • 2030 – NDC target for at least 68% reduction (excluding international aviation and shipping)
  • 2035 – 78% reduction (including international aviation and shipping)
  • 2050 – 100% reduction (to meet whole-economy net zero target)

The report also outlined the decarbonisation pathways to reach net zero by 2050, which included: 

  • delivering 5 gigawatt of hydrogen production capacity by 2030, 
  • decarbonising the power sector, 
  • zero emission cars by 2035, 
  • and the beginnings of zero emissions air travel and low carbon heating technologies for homes. 

The strategy has come under criticism by environmentalists for being too broad and not containing enough information. Friends of the Earth, Good Law Project and ClientEarth took a legal claim to the High Court in June. They used evidence from a Government submission that says that the current strategy would only meet ~95% of the target for 2037.

In the latest report to parliament from the Climate Change Committee on 29 June, one of the key messages was that “tangible progress is lagging the policy ambition” (CCC – PDF). Emissions actually rose by 4% in 2021 as the UK recovered from the pandemic. 

Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth’s Head of Policy comments

“With its own advisor warning that only two fifths of its carbon reduction plans are credible, it’s clear that the UK government is falling woefully short on both honouring international climate change commitments and meeting its legally binding carbon targets….But it’s not too late to act.”

His recommendations focus on tackling home energy efficiency, which would reduce energy consumption, lower prices and cut carbon emissions. 

Is the UK meeting its targets?

In 1990, the UK produced around 800 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e). In 2021, it produced 424.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) (UK GOV – PDF). Emissions are 47.3% lower than they were in 1990 and the target is 55% by 2025. 

The UKCCC has suggested that more work needs to be done. The latest report includes 327 recommendations including:

  • Finding alternatives to nuclear power that is delayed
  • Investing in storage batteries for when wind power is low
  • Increasing home insulation initiatives
  • Publishing a strategy for aviation and freight transport
  • Cutting agricultural emissions through change of diet and land use

The initial targets set by the UK government were ambitious. It met the first two carbon budgets and is on track to meet the third. It is not on track to meet carbon budget 4 onwards. Meeting these targets will require resource and energy efficiency, a change in society, extensive electrification, progress on hydrogen energy, carbon capture & storage, and bioenergy growth. 

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