The UK has come a long way in tackling climate change over the last decade. The data for the last five years demonstrates decarbonisation increasing at pace, culminating in the greenest year on record for Britain’s electricity system in 2020 – average carbon intensity (the measure of CO2 emissions per unit of electricity consumed) reached a new low of 181 gCO2/kWh. In total, the country was powered coal-free for over 5,147 hours in 2020, compared with 3,666 hours in 2019, 1,856 in 2018 and 624 in 2017.
Progress during this time is largely due to changes in the energy mix as the country aligns with climate ambitions. Coal generated only 1.6% of Britain’s electricity mix in 2020, compared to almost 25% five years ago, and against a backdrop of existing nuclear power we’ve ramped up wind power; between 2015-19, electricity produced by wind in the UK increased by almost 100%.
As we look ahead to COP26 and beyond, there is still a huge amount of work to be done to secure a net zero future. A key challenge for the UK over the next decade will be maintaining the pace of decarbonisation while existing nuclear sites are decommissioned. In 2020 existing nuclear power generated 17% of Great Britain’s electricity (47 TWh); this is likely to drop by at least half (and probably more) by 2030. These headwinds, long-expected and planned for, will slow the to-date stellar decline in UK grid emissions.
Recent government commitments to boost the UK’s offshore wind target to 40GW will be crucial to addressing the gap, alongside continued growth in solar and new nuclear. Central to this will be delivery and ensuring we bring local communities on the journey with their support and backing. We will also see a rapid scale-up in electric vehicles (EVs), which will be crucial to achieving the transition to renewables and bringing more flexibility into the electricity market. While there are still challenges posed at street level for the arrival of mass EVs, the implementation of EV infrastructure on the grid will be hugely beneficial to the overall net zero ambition and will help keep costs for consumers down.
To help drive the actions needed to achieve these shifts, new targets, roadmaps, and commitments were announced in 2020. Not just in the UK, but globally too. For example, China recently announced its carbon neutral target for 2060, while President Biden has already moved to re-join the Paris Agreement and make the administration’s intent clear on electric vehicles. All to the good: Political Leaders around the world are stepping up to do their part and acknowledging the global impact of this issue.
While climate targets for 2050 and 2060 are brilliant commitments to help get the world to net zero, the focus for now, and for COP26, must be the hard push to get carbon emissions down in the next decade, and that 2020 proves to be the peak. Critical decisions and changes to the world’s energy infrastructure need to be made, which will be much easier said than done. For example, turning off coal globally would let us hit 2030 climate targets, however the rapid decline would create issues for communities and employment around the world. The challenge at COP26 will be to provide the confidence, support and consensus on the way forward, supporting strategic decisions to decarbonise that will be made in administrations around the world.
That challenge is real. What we do have on our side is the existing technology which can get us to where we need to be, combined with a greater consensus among nations, governments, business
and consumers than ever before. In the lead up to COP26, the hard work will be turning this consensus into positive action that will crank up decarbonisation, bend the curve down and set us on the road of ever declining carbon emissions – and to do that, we must all play our part.