Getting to Zero and Building Back Better

Zero: Building back greener

The UK released around 600m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) into the atmosphere in 1990. As signatories of the Paris Climate Accord that aims to limit average temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, they have committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Since 1990, the UK has reduced its emissions by 40%, a faster reduction than any other major developed country, and aims to get that number to 78% by 2035.

The UK achieved this reduction in large part to cleaner electricity production, moving from coal to gas and renewables. Other factors include the reduction of energy use by both industry and homes, few total miles being driven and more efficient vehicles.

2019 UK Carbon emissions produced by sector:

  • 27% transport
  • 21% energy supply
  • 17% business
  • 15% residential
  • 10% agriculture

In 2020 The Government released the ‘Ten point plan for a green industrial revolution’ that included an investment promise of £12 billion by 2030 to be directed to green technologies including hydrogen, offshore wind, nuclear, electric vehicles, heat, and buildings.

By 2030 the UK Government has committed to:

  • 600,000 heat pump installations per year (2028) to replace gas-based heating systems
  • 40 GW from Offshore wind, including 1GW of advanced floating rigs 
  • Capture 10Mt C02 per year using Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS)
  • 5GW of low carbon hydrogen energy
  • Ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans and accelerating EV charging rollout
  • Building net-zero ready homes

Read the full Build Back Better paper on the UK Government’s website.

Britain reduces carbon emissions

There are three core areas where Britain need to reduce carbon emissions to hit the 2030 target; electricity production, heating, and transport.

Britain is ahead of other industrialised nations. This summer (2020) no coal was burned to produce electricity for over two months. Carbon emissions from electricity generation have been reduced by 44% since 1990, according to the Department for business, energy, and industrial strategy (BEIS) while the economy has grown by 2/3 in the same period. Britain cut emissions 1.8 times faster than the EU average. The country has four remaining coal power stations, and these will all be decommissioned by 2025. 

The reduction in emissions is mainly down to the move away from burning coal to natural gas which burns half as much carbon dioxide as coal. This move started with Margaret Thatcher and the closing of mines, privatising the energy markets, and introducing the north sea oil and gas. The Labour government carried on this move with the Climate Change Act in 2008, that made Britain the first country in the world to commit itself to legally binding carbon-emission reduction. Finally, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition introduced the Carbon Price Support in 2013 that put a carbon tax on power production that made coal with its higher emissions uncompetitive. The carbon tax has to lead to coal production, making up around 25% of electricity production in 2015 to less than 2% in 2020. Wind power currently makes up around 25% of energy production and solar around 4%.

Electricity generation is only a third of the story, and Britain is currently projected to be 10% away from its legally mandated target for carbon emissions according to the BEIS. The current government has a 10 point plan for a green industrial revolution that includes a ban on petrol and diesel cars’ production from 2030, but it has rolled back the plans for mandating all new homes be carbon neutral. For the carbon-neutral goal to be met, buildings need to replace gas boilers with heat pumps, requiring larger radiators or underfloor heating.

The UK is currently leading the industrialised world in green energy production. Still, both us as citizens, through our transport and home purchasing choices, and the government, through proper taxing of externalities like carbon emissions, need to do more to hit the target we have set ourselves.