Tackling climate change involves two strands of action: mitigating the extent and adapting to the impacts.
Mitigation means efforts to reduce or prevent the emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change through a process called decarbonisation. The UK has already reduced domestic emissions by 40% relative to 1990 levels and has a statutory target of net zero by 2050.
All sectors of the economy contribute to UK emissions. While emissions have fallen in some sectors there has been little change in others.
This Insight describes the progress made in decarbonising the electricity sector and explores the shifting focus to mitigation in other sectors, where progress has been more limited.
Decarbonising the electricity sector has been widely acknowledged as a success story. Coal – a high-emission fuel – generated 34% of UK electricity in 1998, but fell to 2% in 2019. The Government has committed to phasing out coal by 2024.
Nuclear is also low-carbon and, while it has not grown as renewables have, still provides almost 20% of UK electricity.
Combining nuclear with renewables, the total UK low-carbon electricity contribution was 54% in 2019. The graph shows how the UK’s electricity mix has changed since 1998.
Challenges remain to fully decarbonise UK electricity as gas still contributes a significant share.
There is debate about the feasibility of connecting large proportions of renewables to the electricity network and questions about the future contribution of nuclear, as old plants retire and few are built.
Possible scenarios for fully decarbonising electricity suggest various technology mixes with options including renewables, nuclear, biomass, carbon capture and storage (CCS), batteries, demand-side response, and interconnectors.
Successive governments have facilitated the electricity transition with policies to discourage high-carbon and support low-carbon generation.
From 2017, policy has been based on the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy for growing the economy whilst reducing emissions.
Decarbonising energy beyond electricity
Electricity is only one part of energy demand (see box below).
Energy used in other sectors is a key source of emissions. The progress made in decarbonising electricity has not been replicated for energy in other sectors.
Energy or electricity?
Energy has various forms and can be transformed from one to another.
Electrical energy is one form of energy, others include heat and chemical.
The difference between electricity and energy is important: different types of energy are used in other sectors, including heating homes and fuelling transport.
Decarbonising home heating for example has been described as “a major challenge,” by the Government’s independent advisors, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). There are various options, including hydrogen, district heating, heat-pumps or biomass along with improving energy efficiency, but these can be costly and uptake has been slow. Decarbonising heating in industry presents further challenges.
A Government Energy White Paper is expected to set out energy decarbonisation plans in 2020.
The shifting focus to other sectors
While there is still progress to be made in electricity, the focus of Government and stakeholders is shifting to mitigating emissions from other sectors.
This is reflected in new Government policy and legislation, scrutiny through parliamentary questions and debates, committee inquiries and the Citizens’ Climate Assembly, alongside growing industry interest in sustainability.
The shifting focus is important as many sectors’ emissions have remained flat since 1990 and some have even risen. Since 2016, transport has become the main source of UK emissions (see graph).
Different sectors, different challenges
There are various reasons why other sectors have not followed electricity’s progress.
Electricity has been described as decarbonisation’s “low-hanging fruit.” The CCC suggested reasons for this include the centralised nature of the sector, limited need for consumer behaviour to change, and the availability and now falling costs of low-carbon technologies.
This is not the case across all sectors where solutions may be costly, difficult or unavailable.
In transport for example, lower emission vehicles have traditionally been expensive to buy and run. In addition, fossil fuel costs for consumers can be politically sensitive. As such, successive governments have frozen fuel duty for 10 years to keep costs down for drivers.
Now, electric vehicles are cheaper to run than conventional cars and are expected to soon be cheaper to buy. Other sectors, like aviation and agriculture, may not have such available solutions, meaning they are called “hard-to-treat.”
Mitigating to net zero
Experience in other countries shows progress can be made in sectors where UK mitigation has been limited.
This includes sustainable farming in the Netherlands, CCS use in various sectors in several countries, and far greater sales of heat-pumps in France and electric vehicles in Norway.
International and UK experience shows multiple policy levers can help mitigation. This includes regulating out high-carbon products, subsidising low-carbon technologies and taxing high-carbon activities.
The CCC has warned there is a “shortfall” of action. The Committee explains that part of the challenge of mitigating climate change to meet a net zero target is that there is “less scope for under-delivery in areas that prove difficult to change.”
House of Commons Library and Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) publications on specific sectors:
- Support for low carbon power (April 2020)
- Support for small scale renewables (January 2020)
- New Nuclear Power (March 2020)
- Carbon capture usage and storage (March 2020)
- Electricity grids (January 2019)
- POSTnote on Overseas electricity interconnection (February 2018)
- Net zero targets and decarbonising transport (January 2020)
- Electric vehicles and infrastructure (March 2020)
- POSTnote on Climate change and aviation (February 2020)
- Housing: Housing and net zero (February 2020)
- Heating: POSTnote on Decarbonising the gas network (November 2017)
- Agriculture: POSTnote on Agriculture and climate change (April 2019)
About the author: Suzanna Hinson is a specialist in energy policy at the House of Commons Library.