UK was First Major Economy to Embrace a Legal Obligation to Achieve Net Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050

This post was submitted by UK Country Managers Thomas Christensen and Gwenyth Wren

Current level of greenhouse gas emissions

In 2019, net emissions in the UK were estimated to be 454.8 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e), a decrease of 2.8% compared to the 2018 figure of 468.1 million tonnes and 43.8% lower than they were in 1990. Carbon dioxide made up around 80% of the 2019 total (refer to figure 1). This information is from the United Kingdom’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) 2019 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Final Figures Report. The data is generated from BEIS, which collects data for each identified emissions source from various government agencies with the UK and international research agencies, such as the EEA. This source data and methods used to derive the UK greenhouse gas emission estimates have been developed to be consistent with methods defined within the IPCC 2016 report. The data is subject to compliance check by the Office of National Statistics. The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 were 51% below 1990 levels, according to new Carbon Brief analysis.


2030 Emissions Reduction Commitment Level

The 2.9% fall in 2019 marks a seventh consecutive year of carbon cuts for the UK, the longest series on record. On 12 December 2020, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson communicated its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement. The NDC commits the UK to reducing economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. The UK doubled down on this figure, announcing a further reduction during US Climate Action Week/Earth Week (78% by 2035).

2030 Implementation Plan

The UK’s path to meeting this target is supported by the Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution, which will ideally create and support up to 250,000 British jobs by 2030. The plan sets out ambitious policies and investment, with the potential to deliver over £40 billions of private investment by 2030, so that the UK can develop innovative technologies and make significant strides in cutting emissions across energy, transport, and buildings. It also provides a roadmap for further action the UK will be taking to reduce emissions in the coming decades, encouraging similar levels of ambition from businesses, financial sectors, and other nations. The 10-point plan focuses on the following areas: advancing offshore wind, driving the growth of low carbon hydrogen, delivering new and advanced nuclear power, accelerating the shift to zero emission vehicles, green public transport, cycling and walking, ‘jet zero’ and green ships, greener buildings, investing in carbon capture, usage, and storage, protecting the natural environment, green finance, and innovation. Additional plans include: The Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy (15-year outlook), the North Sea Transition Deal (2030 timeline), and the Energy White Paper.  As well the country will publish a Net Zero Strategy ahead of COP26. Most recently, the UK recently aligned with the Climate Change Committee (CCC) recommended Sixth Carbon Budget which sets a 78% reduction by 2035 and a plan to get there.

2050 Emission Reduction Commitment Level

The UK was the first major economy to embrace a legal obligation to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan states “Over the next year we will work with industry to devise further sectoral plans and meet our carbon budgets and target of net zero by 2050.”

The Ten-point plan gives a good framework for achieving net zero, however, it is just one step on the path to achieving this emissions reduction. The plan states “In the coming year, we will set out further plans for reducing emissions across all the UK’s major economic sectors as outlined below, including our overall Net Zero Strategy, which will clearly set out our pathway to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.”

The UK’s Council for Science and Technology recommended a systems approach to transition towards the net-zero emissions target, the recommendations fall into three parts: strengthening institutions and governance frameworks, developing analytical capability, the flow of information and reporting needed to inform decisions and the need to  maximize contribution of technology to mobilize financial systems. The new 78% reduction target illustrates that the UK is focused on working with a 2030/2035 outlook and will surely keep producing more strategies in the coming year for 2050 based on the progress of the next decade.


The UK’s Paris Agreement Pledge

The NDC commits the UK to reducing economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. The 68% target is a significant strengthening of its previous 57% target and is also aligned with the UK’s 2050 net-zero target. The Government’s recently-released emissions projections show that, under current policies, it is not on track to achieve its former 57% target, let alone its newly announced 68% target. Recently announced policies in the 10-point plan, including a 2030 ban on the sale of fossil fuel cars and a ramping up of renewable energy investment, particularly into offshore wind, are the kind of ambitious actions that will be required across all sectors of the UK economy to meet its new 2030 NDC and its 2050 net-zero target. However, there is not significant data yet to measure the potential impact of these policies. This has been acknowledged by the UK in its NDC, with a commitment to develop further policies over time. Additionally, the CCC’s recommended pathway requires a 78% reduction of emissions between 1990 and 2035. This CCC report (Sixth Carbon Budget) states this goal can be met through four key steps: take up of low carbon solutions, expansion of low carbon energy supplies, reducing demand for carbon-intensive activities, and land and greenhouse gas removals.  It is important to emphasize despite this ambitious commitment, the upcoming challenge for the UK given that it is hosting COP26 where new, more ambitious targets could be decided is working to meet, or ideally exceed, its Paris reduction target.



The Right honourable Alok Sharma MP

President for COP 26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference

Phone: 020 7219 7131 Email:

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