On 5 February, the Office of National Statistics published final figures on the UK’s 1990-2017 greenhouse gas emissions. CO2 emissions have declined 37% from their 1990 levels – the fastest decline in emissions in any developed country. For context, the EU’s nationally determined contribution to the Paris Agreement is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from their 1990 levels by 2030. Compared to this target, the UK’s progress might seem beyond expectations. However, most nationally determined contributions are incompatible with the overarching Paris Agreement goal of limiting the global average temperature increase from pre-industrial levels to 2°C. Furthermore, sectorial analysis reveals persistent challenges to decarbonisation, even in a country like the UK which is widely regarded as having an effective decarbonisation policy.
Commercial, industrial, residential, and waste sources of emissions have all significantly declined. A precipitous drop in the presence of coal in the UK’s electricity mix, supplanted by gas and renewables, has resulted in cleaner electricity generation representing almost half of the emissions reductions. While some of the decline has been initially attributable to the global recession a decade ago, emissions and energy demand have continued to decline despite economic recovery.
Two sectors’ emissions appear unaffected: agriculture and transportation. Total road traffic has increased, with improved fuel economy negating a rise in emissions, while agricultural emissions have stagnated for a decade. These sectors have yet to adopt cost-effective alternatives to fossil fuels. It will remain difficult to reduce their emissions without shifting their energy characteristics. The carbon budget for the 2°C target will be greatly exceeded if these sectors are ignored.
The UK can deepen its emissions reductions by linking up difficult sectors with its low-carbon power sector. Increasing electrification in transport and agriculture is, therefore, key to reducing those sectors’ emissions. A more structured demand-side response that brings together energy efficiency and energy conservation with policies aimed at altering individual behaviour is also essential, in line with French “energy sobriety” or the Japanese setsuden movement.