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Blog Post 8 June 2021

Supporting the UK’s transition to net zero

At the end of last year, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) set out a detailed path to ensure the UK achieves its net zero target by 2050.

The 1,000-page Sixth Carbon Budget report includes a detailed assessment of key milestones that must be met to achieve decarbonisation over the next three decades. The Committee’s key recommendation is to target a 75% reduction in carbon emissions, compared to 1990 levels, by 2035.

Steps to reach net zero

The CCC’s net zero route map sets out four steps that will be essential to achieve decarbonisation over the next 30 years:

1. Take up of low carbon solutions

This includes the adoption of electric vehicles, replacing boilers with heat pumps, as well as a shift to renewable electricity and hydrogen.

2. Expansion of low carbon energy supplies

Production of electricity in the UK will be zero carbon by 2035, with reliance on offshore wind power to increase.

3. Reducing demand for carbon-intensive activities

The UK will need to waste less and reduce its reliance on carbon-intensive goods. Buildings will become more energy efficient and there will be fewer car miles travelled.

4. Land and greenhouse gas removals

Agriculture and farmland use are expected to change dramatically. New mixed woodland will remove carbon dioxide from the air, while more land will be used to produce energy crops.

Leadership from government

The level of ambition is clear, but it will require commitment from individuals, businesses and communities to drastically reduce emissions from our homes, energy and industry. Everyone will have a part to play, and we will all stand to benefit.

However, every journey needs a leader, and it will be especially important that government both leads on the pathway to net zero and uses all the levers at its disposal to support it.

This isn’t just a matter of money, though very significant government funding will be needed; it’s also about providing certainty. By giving a clear signal to the market through long-term policy commitments that support net zero, the UK Government can set a course for us all to follow.

The progress so far

In March 2021, Carbon Brief analysis suggested that the UK is now halfway to meeting its net zero emissions target, as greenhouse gas emissions fell to 51% below 1990 levels in 2020.

The milestone was reached after a record-breaking 11% drop in emissions in 2020, which has largely been attributed to the impact of Covid-19. While the news is positive, it may be short-lived, with carbon emissions expected to rebound in 2021 as the economy recovers from the pandemic.

The government’s own estimates were somewhat more conservative. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) reported a 48.8% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, compared to 1990, due in large part to the shift away from generating electricity from fossil fuels towards renewable sources.

This (almost) halfway milestone is a critical one. The UK is widely recognised as a leader on climate change, after we became the first major economy to legally commit to a net zero emissions target. This recent success in curbing emissions signals a clear ambition to address the climate emergency.

The UK Government has promised to “build back greener” from the Covid-19 pandemic, committing £12 billion in investment for clean energy, low carbon transport and innovative technologies. In December, the Prime Minister pledged to cut emissions by 68% by 2030 (based on 1990 levels), going further than any other major economy.

COP26 and net zero

The UK will have an opportunity later this year to reaffirm this bold pledge and meet its ambition to lead the transition to net zero, when the country hosts the COP26 climate event in November.

Nations around the world will look to the UK for climate change leadership. Our impressive record developing offshore wind, and huge reductions in the use of coal to generate electricity, will come under the spotlight – and rightly so.

On 5 April, Great Britain’s electricity grid recorded its greenest day ever, as low carbon, renewable energy made up 80% of the nation’s electricity. Power plants in England, Scotland and Wales produced just 39g of carbon dioxide for every kilowatt hour of electricity, the lowest carbon intensity ever recorded.

The path ahead

The UK must continue on this low carbon path if we are to reach our net zero target by 2050 – but the momentum needs to accelerate over the next five years.

At Energy Saving Trust we are now working on the assumption that action in these next few years will be critical to decisively change the trajectory of carbon emissions and keep the rise in global temperatures well below the 2°C Paris Agreement target – and preferably limit warming to 1.5°C.

With the anticipation of COP26 later this year, 2021 offers the opportunity for a green recovery from Covid-19, in which the UK and the rest of the world commit to and invest in a pathway to net zero.

Last updated: 7 June 2021