The UK has made excellent progress on reducing emissions. But the hard part is yet to come.
The UK’s Climate Change Act (2008) established a legally binding obligation to reduce UK emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. This is an ambitious undertaking, a sixty year programme to cut four in every five tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously growing the economy.
The story so far is, broadly, an encouraging one. 2016 emission were 42% below 1990 levels, about half way to the 2050 target. This has been achieved in 26 years, a little under half the time available. And it has been achieved while population has grown by about 15% and the economy has grown by over 60%. The reduction in emissions from 1990 to 2015 is shown on the chart below, which also shows the UK’s legislated carbon budgets. There is of course some uncertainty in the data, especially for non-CO2 gases, but uncertainties in trends are less than the uncertainty in the absolute levels, and emissions of CO2 from energy, which is the largest component of the total, are closely tracked.
The UK is half way towards its 2050 target, in a little under half the available time …
Source: Committee on Climate Change
The chart below shows the sectoral breakdown of how this has been achieved, and this raises some important caveats.
Progress in some sectors has been much more rapid than others …
Source: Committee on Climate Change
The largest source of gains has been the power sector, especially if a further fall of a remarkable in emissions from power generation in 2016 is included (the chart only shows data to 2015). While renewables have made an important contribution, much of this fall has been due to replacing coal with gas. This been an economically efficient, low cost way of reducing emissions to date, to which UK carbon price support has been a major contributor. However coal generation has now fallen to very low levels, so further progress requires replacing gas with low carbon generation – renewables, nuclear and CCS. This is more challenging, and in some cases is likely to prove more expensive.
The next largest source of gains, roughly a third of the total reduction, is from industry. However, while detailed data is not available, a large part of this reduction may have been due to broader economic trends, notably globalisation of the world economy leading to heavy industry becoming more concentrated in emerging economies. This trend may also have had some effect on electricity demand and thus emissions. The aggregate reduction in global emissions may thus be smaller than indicated by looking at the UK alone. Reducing global emissions still requires a great deal more progress on industrial emissions, especially in emissions intensive sectors notably iron and steel and cement.
Progress in reduction of emissions from waste, especially methane from landfill, has been a third important contributor. Again, this has been highly cost-effective reduction. However about two thirds of emissions have now been eliminated so further measures will necessarily make a smaller contribution, though there is much that can still be done with the remainder such as eliminating organic waste from landfill.
Other sectors have done much less, and will need to do more in the years to come. Progress on f-gases may be helped by the recent international agreement on HFCs, although more will still need to be done. Transport emissions have made only slow progress in recent years. It is essential that electrification is encouraged so that a large change similar to that achieved in the power sector can be achieved in transport. The buildings stock remains an intractable problem, and the first priority must be to at least make sure that new buildings are built to the highest standards of insulation.
So continuing the trend of falling emissions in future will be difficult and will require new and enhanced policy measures. But in 1990 the prospects of achieving what has already been achieved doubtless looked daunting, and progress to date should encourage further efforts in future.
Adam Whitmore -25th April 2017
Material in this post draws on a presentation by Owen Bellamy of the Committee on Climate Change at a British Institute of Energy Economics seminar on 5th April 2017.
 The UK’s domestic emissions need to go down slightly more rapidly than the headline target would suggest due to the role of international aviation and shipping. This is shown on the chart. However the broad message is the same.