The UK’s climate targets are governed by “carbon budgets”. These limit cumulative GHG emissions over a five-year period and are legally binding. Following the adoption of the UK’s Climate Change Act in 2008, five initial budgets were provided which cover the period from 2008–2032. These budgets were set with the aim of reducing emissions to 80% below 1990 levels in 2050.
In 2019, the UK increased the ambition of its 2050 target to net zero GHG emissions (UK Government 2019d). In 2020, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) provided advice on the Sixth Carbon Budget, which covers the 2033–2037 period (CCC 2020). This provided information on how the UK should increase the ambition of its near-term targets to align with the goal of net zero emissions.
The CCC recommended a 2030 target of reducing GHG emissions to at least 68% below 1990 levels (excluding international aviation and shipping or bunker fuels), alongside a 2035 target of reducing emissions to at least 78% below 1990 levels (including international aviation and shipping). The UK government has since adopted both recommendations. However, the 2030 target is only enshrined in the UK’s NDC, which is not legally binding, and the corresponding carbon budget for the 2028–2032 period has not been updated as of September 2022.
In addition to these UK national targets, the devolved administrations have also set targets. The Scottish government has legislated the following medium-term targets (Scottish Parliament 2019), all of which include LULUCF emissions:
- 2030: 75% below 1990 levels
- 2040: 90% below 1990 levels
- Net zero GHG emissions by 2045
The Welsh government has also set emissions targets (Welsh Government 2021a), all of which include LULUCF emissions:
- 2030: 63% below 1990 levels
- 2040: 89% below 1990 levels
- 2050: 95% below 1990 levels
There are currently no devolved targets for Northern Ireland. England does not have a devolved administration and therefore is bound by the UK wide targets adopted by the UK government.
|UNITED KINGDOM - Main climate targets|
|2030 NDC target|
|Formulation of target in NDC||A reduction of at least 68%, relative to 1990 levels|
|Absolute emissions level in 2030 excl. LULUCF||
[68% below 1990]
[59% below 2010]
|Status||Submitted on 12 December 2020, updated on 23 September 2022|
|Net zero target & other long-term targets|
|Formulation of target||
It is the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 100% lower than the 1990 baseline.
(The net carbon account includes all greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, not just CO2).
|Absolute emissions level in 2050 excl. LULUCF||
[100% below 1990]
[100% below 2010]
|Status||Submitted on 19 October 2021|
*The CAT focuses on future emissions excluding LULUCF and international aviation and shipping (international bunker) emissions. The UK’s net zero target covers both LULUCF and international bunkers. The CCC’s path for reaching net zero by 2050 involves residual emissions of ~19 MtCO2e from international bunkers, and also a 19 MtCO2e sink from the LULUCF sector. These offset one another so that 2050 emissions remain at 0 MtCO2e. However, this does not represent a target to reach absolute zero emissions, with residual emissions from aviation and other sectors balanced by removals from LULUCF and engineered CO2 removal.
CAT rating of targets
The UK does not intend to use market mechanisms and will achieve its NDC target through to domestic action alone. We rate its NDC target against both domestic and fairness metrics.
The UK’s NDC broadly aligns with least cost modelled pathways which limit warming to 1.5°C with no or low overshoot. To cut emissions in 2030 by “at least 68%” below 1990 levels (including LULUCF) represents a reduction in emissions of 40% below 2021 levels. It requires the UK to reduce emissions by over 5% per year through the 2020s, almost double the rate of the previous decade. This “1.5°C compatible” rating indicates that the UK’s domestic target is consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C on a globally cost-effective basis.
When compared against what would be a fair share of effort towards achieving the Paris Agreement goals, the UK’s NDC is ranked as “Insufficient”. The “Insufficient” rating indicates that the UK’s fair share target in 2030 needs substantial improvements to be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.
The UK’s target is at the least stringent end of what would be a fair share of global effort and is not consistent with the 1.5°C limit, unless other countries make much deeper reductions and comparably greater effort. If all countries were to follow the UK’s approach, warming would reach over 2°C and up to 3°C.
The UK’s current NDC sets a target of 251 MtCO2e/yr in 2030 (when expressed in AR4 GWPs excl. LULUCF). To improve its fair share rating, the UK would need to cut emissions by an additional 280–400 MtCO2e. Some of this additional reduction could be achieved domestically, by cutting UK emissions to more than 68% below 1990 levels (WWF 2020).
However, it will not be feasible for the UK to achieve all these emissions reductions domestically. Therefore, the UK will need to develop clear and ambitious plans to support climate action in other countries, particularly through capacity building, technology transfer and climate finance. Without this, the UK cannot be seen to be aligned with the Paris Agreement’s commitment to reflect ‘equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities’ in climate action.
The UK’s international public climate finance contributions are rated “Highly insufficient.” The UK has committed to increase its provision of climate finance, but contributions to date have been very low compared to its fair share and have also declined noticeably since 2015. To improve its rating the UK needs to substantially increase the level of its international climate finance contributions in the post-2020 period.
The CAT rates countries on their provision of mitigation-related climate finance, although finance for adaptation often lags behind mitigation and also needs greater attention from the global community (Timperley 2021). The UK’s reported contributions to financing emissions reductions abroad fall far short of its fair share contribution to the USD 100bn goal (which itself will be increased post-2025).
Climate finance contributions where mitigation was the primary objective have also decreased in the past five years, falling 55% between 2015 and 2020 (OECD 2022). Some of the UK’s wider development aid could result in emission reductions as a subsidiary outcome, but is not included in this analysis. For more details see the methodology on finance ratings. On current contributions and historical trends therefore, the UK is rated as “highly insufficient”.
In 2019, the UK committed to doubling its climate finance provision from GBP 5.8 bn across 2016-2020 to GBP 11.6 bn across 2021–2026 (UK Government 2019c). However, in July 2021 it was revealed that this would not be new funding, and instead would be taken from the existing aid budget (Merrick 2021). This breaks a UN-brokered agreement that such funding would be ‘new and additional’ (UNFCCC 2011), and follows an earlier 2021 announcement of a cut in the UK’s total aid budget (Wintour 2021). Increased climate finance will therefore come at the expense of substantial reductions in other, much needed development aid. The UK should reverse these changes and ensure that climate finance is new and additional, rather than competing with other development priorities.
The UK supported GBP 21 bn of UK oil and gas exports through trade promotion and export finance’ over 2016–2020 (UK Government 2020b). From March 31 2021, however, the UK stopped investing in fossil fuel projects abroad, covering “export finance, aid funding and trade promotion for new crude oil, natural gas or thermal coal projects” (UK Government 2020b). There are some exemptions to this policy relating to investment in natural gas power plants and infrastructure, but broadly this commitment is to be welcomed. At COP26 in Glasgow, the UK was part of a group of 20 governments who publicly committed to ending financial support for fossil fuels overseas by the end of 2022 (Vaughan 2021).
Further information on how the CAT rates countries (against modelled domestic pathways and fair share) can be found here.
On 12 December 2020, the UK submitted its first updated NDC to the UNFCCC after leaving the European Union. This NDC committed the UK to reducing GHG emissions to 68% below 1990 levels by 2030. This represents a significant strengthening from the UK’s previous 2030 commitment, which was to reduce emissions by 57% below 1990 levels. The UK’s NDC is now aligned with its 2050 target of achieving net zero GHG emissions, according to analysis by the CCC (CCC 2020).
The UK’s NDC is broadly aligned with least-cost modelled domestic emissions pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C with no or low overshoot. However, it is at the higher end of the 1.5°C compatible range of emissions. It could therefore be further increased to more firmly align with least-cost modelled domestic pathways. Recent analysis highlighted a range of feasible options and concluded that an emissions reductions target of above 70% and towards 75% would be achievable (WWF 2020). As the NDC is not aligned with the UK’s fair share target for climate action, further increasing the ambition in the UK’s NDC would better enable the UK to embody the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities that are at the heart of the Paris Agreement.
The UK revisited and updated its NDC on 23 September 2022 (UK Government 2022k). The UK did not strengthen the overall GHG emissions reductions target, as requested by the Glasgow Climate Pact agreed at COP26 under the UK’s presidency. It did, however, provide a range of additional information to facilitate clarity, transparency and understanding. This includes information on how the UK will deliver its NDC by 2030, how it will assess the NDC’s achievement, an update on the NDC’s territorial scope (which includes the Crown Territory of Jersey and Overseas Dependency of Gibraltar), and more information on how the UK’s climate targets relate to broader goals around gender, green skills, a just transition, biodiversity, health, air pollution and public engagement. However, without strengthening the level of ambition in its NDC, and providing increased levels of climate finance to support emissions reductions in less wealthy countries, the UK will be unable to improve its rating on the Climate Action Tracker.
|First NDC||2020 NDC update||2022 NDC update|
|Formulation of target in NDC||
57% reduction below 1990 levels. This corresponds to the average annual emissions allowed under the UK’s fifth carbon budget (2028–2032): 1,725 MtCO2e
At least 68% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.
|Absolute emissions level in 2030 excl. LULUCF||
|Emissions compared to 1990 and 2010 excl. LULUCF||
57% below 1990 emissions by 2030
41% below 2010 emissions by 2030
68% below 1990 emissions by 2030
59% below 2010 emissions by 2030
Fair share target (unconditional):
1.5°C compatible (unchanged)
Fair share target (unconditional):
|Sector coverage||Economy-wide, incl. LULUCF||Economy-wide, incl. LULUCF||Unchanged|
|Separate target for LULUCF||No||No||Unchanged|
|Gas coverage||All greenhouse gases||All greenhouse gases||Unchanged|
|Target type||Absolute emissions limit||Absolute emissions reductions below different base years (1995 for F-gases, 1990 for all other gases)||Unchanged|
|Explanation why the target is a fair contribution towards the global goal||Not provided||
The submission notes that the UK’s NDC target level was set taking into account a range of recognised IPCC equity principles. However, the submission is not explicit on which principles were used, such as the UK’s historical responsibility towards cumulative emissions or its capacity to act relative to less wealthy nations.
It highlights that in the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C, pathways limiting warming to 1.5°C show a reduction in global net anthropogenic GHG emissions of around 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels. The UK’s NDC targets a more rapid reduction than these global pathways, reducing GHG emissions by approximately 57% on 2010 levels (59% using CAT assumptions). This is taken as justification for the UK’s NDC representing a fair contribution towards the global goal.
The submissions also notes that UK per capita emissions would fall from around 14 MtCO2e in 1990 to under 4 MtCO2e in 2030. This means the UK would only align with 1.5°C compatible global per-capita emissions by 2030 at the earliest.
The fairness of the UK’s targets has been challenged by many (Anderson et al 2020) and the CAT judges the NDC as insufficient compared to the UK’s fair-share target.
|In the 2022 NDC update, the UK also noted that in the latest IPCC report (IPCC 2022), pathways compatible with the Paris Agreement goals reduce total GHG emissions by 41% from 2019-2030. The UK’s NDC represents a commitment to reduce emissions by approximately 42% over the same period (UK Government 2022k).|
|Followed guidance in Decision 4/CMA.1 on target transparency||N/A||Yes||Yes (unchanged)|
* Before September 2021, all CAT ratings were based exclusively on fair share and only assessed a country’s target.
Analysis of earlier NDC developments:
- 12.12.2020: UK submits ambitious NDC to UNFCCC
- 03.12.2020: UK announces NDC in advance of Climate Ambition Summit
Net zero and other long-term target(s)
The UK has enshrined the net zero target by 2050 in law by way of revising and amending the Climate Change Act 2008 in 2019. The Net Zero Strategy released in October 2021 has been submitted to the UNFCCC as the UK’s updated long-term strategy.
The net zero target covers most key elements considered important by the CAT to enhance transparency, target architecture, and scope. The UK meets good practice for most of these benchmarks, but some elements remain undefined or lacking. For example, a clear commitment not to use reductions or removals outside of the UK, and providing separate targets for emissions reductions and removals would improve the target architecture of the UK’s net zero target.
The UK was the first major economy to establish and pass a legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050 in 2019 (UK Government 2019d). The UK’s target covers all sectors and gases and includes emissions from international aviation and shipping. Excluding LULUCF and international aviation and shipping, this corresponds to 2050 emissions of 0 MtCO2e/yr as existing residual emissions from agriculture and other sectors such as international aviation are being balanced by CO2 removal from BECCS, DACCS and other approaches. For this reason, this does not represent a target to reach absolute zero emissions.
For the full analysis click here.
Subscribe to our newsletter