UK halfway to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050

The UK is now halfway to meeting its target of net-zero emissions by 2050, new research shows.

According to analysis by Carbon Brief, the UK’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2020 were 51% below 1990 levels. The milestone was reached after a ‘record-breaking’ 11% fall in GHG emissions in 2020, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Emissions are likely to rebound this year, or in 2022, as the economy recovers.

The nature of the decline in 2020 shows how difficult it will be for the UK to eliminate its remaining emissions, said Carbon Brief. It also illustrates the progress made so far, ahead of the COP26 climate summit, scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November.

Calculating emissions

In 1990, the year then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher resigned after more than a decade, the UK’s GHG emissions stood at 794 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. This is conventionally used as the baseline for the UK’s climate goals, including the net-zero target, under its legally binding Climate Change Act and its international pledge to the Paris Agreement.

It has taken 30 years for UK emissions to fall 51% below 1990 levels, according to Carbon Brief’s new analysis of government data. This is halfway to net-zero, with another 30 years to reach the target. It is important to note that progress would have been slightly slower if including international aviation and expected changes to the UK’s GHG inventory. The target will not include emissions associated with the UK consumption of goods and services imported from overseas.

Coal still made up two-thirds of electricity in 1990, making the power sector the largest contributor to the UK’s emissions at that time. Gas had yet to reshape the electricity market, and oil power still made up 10% of generation. Renewables accounted for just 2% of the energy mix, almost exclusively from hydro.

By 2019, the UK’s GHG emissions had been ‘dramatically reduced’, falling to 45% below 1990 levels, even as the economy grew by nearly 80%.

Carbon Brief said almost all of the fall in emissions between 1990 and 2010 had been due to major changes in just three key areas, which together account for around 90% of the decline:

  • Electricity supplies that no longer rely on coal (around 40%)

  • Cleaner industry (40%), including manufacturing and waste industry emissions controls on landfill methane, halocarbons, and nitrous oxide (25%), as well as more efficient industrial processes and a structural shift away from carbon-intensive manufacturing (15%)

  • A smaller and cleaner fossil fuel supply industry, with lower methane emissions from coal mines and leaky gas distribution pipes (10%).

Much slower progress was made on the gas used to heat homes and offices, however, which by 2019 made up a fifth of the UK’s emissions, despite more efficient boilers and better insulation. Additionally, almost no progress was made in transport, which was by 2019 responsible for more than a quarter of the UK’s emissions and was the single largest contributor.

Rise of renewables

The electricity sector is where the large majority of UK emissions cuts have occurred over the past 10 years, during which the country’s power supplies have been transformed, according to Carbon Brief.

In 2020, emissions in the power sector fell again, as the shift away from coal and gas continued. Coal met just 1.6% of generation and the UK went without coal power on 180 of the 366 days in 2020 (49%). This compares with just 83 days in 2019 and 21 days in 2018.

Last year also saw a 15% drop in gas generation thanks to lower demand and another increase from renewables. This was accelerated by the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Since 2010, UK electricity demand has fallen by 58 terawatt hours, equivalent to more than two Hinkley Point C new nuclear plants. At the same time, the UK has significantly expanded its capacity of wind farms, solar parks, and bioenergy plants, meaning the 43% share of electricity generated by renewables was larger than from fossil fuels for the first time in 2020.

Bioenergy generated 13% of electricity, rising by 6% year on year, with Drax making up only around one-third of overall biomass electricity supplies. A further third comes from smaller plants that burn biomass, most of which is also wood.

These smaller facilities, such as the Iggesund cardboard factory in Cumbria, typically rely on domestic sources and predominantly take low-value forestry streams or waste wood. The final third of biomass electricity comes from landfill gas, anaerobic digestion, and sewage sludge.

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