Carbon Brief: ‘UK is halfway to meeting 2050 net zero target – but not for long’

Carbon Brief warns despite this success, emissions are likely to rebound this year or next as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic

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The UK is now halfway to meeting its 2050 net zero target, says Carbon Brief.

However, in its new analysis, it reveals the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions fell to 51% below 1990 levels largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused greenhouse gas emissions to fall by a record-breaking 11%.

Unfortunately, it highlights this means emissions “are likely to rebound this year or next as the economy recovers”, which would end the eighth consecutive year of the country’s emissions cuts.

Carbon Brief states this emphasises the scale of action needed for the UK to eliminate its remaining emissions in the next 30 years, while it also works to rebuild its damaged economy.

In 1990, the net zero baseline year, the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions totalled 794 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) – this dropped by 45% by 2019, despite the economy growing by nearly 80% over this time.

This improvement was driven by changes in just three areas, which together accounted for roughly 90% of the decline – low carbon electricity sources removed around 40%, with another 40% reduction coming from cleaner industry processes, such as reduced manufacturing emissions and controls on landfill methane, halocarbons and nitrous oxide.

The report shows the remaining 10% of this reduction was driven by a smaller and cleaner fossil fuel supply industry resulting in lower methane emissions from coal mines and fewer leaky gas distribution pipes.

It warns much more progress remains to be made on gas heating, which made up a fifth of the UK’s emissions in 2019, and transport, which was responsible for more than a quarter of the UK’s emissions in the same year, making it the country’s single largest contributor to climate change.

Carbon brief also highlights that the current net zero target currently does not directly include emissions from international aviation and shipping.

The report states: “The UK’s progress in cutting emissions has been built on structural shifts away from coal power and towards renewables, as well as a cleaner, less carbon-intensive industrial base.

“Yet the reductions in 2020 were largely one-off and unique to the coronavirus pandemic, with lockdowns persisting through much of the year in the UK. As a result, the country’s economic output declined by an estimated 10%, posting the biggest hit in the G20 group of nations.

“The government’s Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has forecast a bounceback in economic growth of 4% this year and 7% in 2022, naturally raising questions about the impact on emissions.

“Since so much of the reduction in UK emissions last year was due to cars parked on driveways, an emissions rebound is also likely, though its timing and strength will depend on the pace of the recovery, the length of ongoing Covid restrictions and the impact of ongoing structural changes.”