Is the UK on track to meet its climate change targets?

With COP26 finally underway in Glasgow and high expectations surrounding the meeting of global leaders to act on climate change, the UK, and in particular the UK government being hosts to COP26, has come under significant scrutiny in recent months for its commitments to tackling climate change. After much bolstering from the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government’s actions and commitments on climate change and demands for others to take on similar commitments ahead of the conference, many have questioned what exactly has the UK government done to tackle climate change and are its commitments adequate to achieving its goals. At first glance, the UK has achieved commendable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in recent decades and its enshrinement into law of achieving net-zero by 2050 last year set a bold precedence to the rest of the world of its commitments to climate change and what level of action is expected from other governments ahead of COP26.

Recent assessments from policy analysts, scientists, and experts alike who have sought to answer the question of what has the UK government achieved in tackling climate change and are its commitments sufficient to achieve its objectives have drawn conclusions that challenge some of the claims the UK government have made on its achievements and the effectiveness of its current strategies in achieving future policy obligations.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC), the UK government's independent statutory body on climate change policy, recently published a report examining the government's net-zero adaptation strategies in which the authors outlined the disparity between the government's aspirations versus its current strategies and progress in achieving net-zero.

On a positive note, the CCC outlined the successes the UK government has achieved so far in reducing its emissions, with a 50% reduction in territorial emissions since 1990 in line with the government's previous target for emissions reduction by 2020 and the trajectory of decreasing emissions achieved leading up to 2020. The majority of emissions cuts so far have come from a rapidly decarbonising energy sector, which saw emissions fall 65% from 2009 to 2019. However, without further progress and a clear strategy to achieve reductions outside the energy sector, emissions targets will be missed by a huge margin. The report outlines of the 21 key sectors for decarbonisation outlined by the UK government, only a fifth have sufficient strategies in place to achieve their intended decarbonisation adjustments, and without an amendment to current policies, only a fifth of the intended 80% in emissions reductions by 2035 outlined in the governments Sixth Carbon Budget strategy will be achieved. The CCC has repeatedly outlined a “policy gap” between the government’s plans and its legally-binding targets in recent reports and without significant adjustments to current policies, a pathway to net-zero by 2050 will be missed by a significant margin.

Achieving net-zero will be a monumental task, with large sums of investment and ambitious policy decisions necessary, which will transform the UK's economy and how the country's system of everyday business operates. As a forerunner in committing and developing for net-zero, the UK will stand as an example to the rest of the world on what can be accomplished and how net-zero is achieved, and therefore great precedence will fall on the UK and its government to ‘get it right’. However, without ambitious and robust policies and strategies, deep cuts in emissions to net-zero could fail as an achievable objective to the world's governments, which would result in dire consequences for a world where profound cuts in emissions are needed more than ever.


Iwan Pritchard