- Population (2019): 66 834 405 (21st most populated country).
- GDP per capita (2019): USD$42 300 (Ranked 20th globally).
- Emissions (2018): 441Mt (15th highest emitter).
- Earth.Org Sustainability Index Ranking: 8th.
Pledges & Targets
- Paris Agreement & NDC: The UK’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), first submitted in December 2020 following the UK’s exit from the EU, targets the following:
- A commitment to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.
- In April 2021, the UK announced a new NDC that will target a 78% emissions reduction by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. This updated NDC will be officially legislated in June 2021.
- Road to Net-Zero: The UK announced a target in June 2019 to reduce its net emissions by 100% relative to 1990 levels by 2050. Prior to this, the UK was committed to reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% of their 1990 levels, also by 2050.
- Conservation Goals: Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in September 2020 that the government would ensure 30% of protected land by 2030. The UK government also plays a prominent role in the global 30×30 initiative to protect 30% of oceans by 2030.
- Clean Energy Goals: The UK has announced no specific targets or timelines pertaining to increased clean energy generation or renewable energy capacity.
State of Affairs
In April 2021, the UK announced an updated NDC that ranked among the most ambitious of the developed world. The UK’s new NDC sets it apart from other similarly advanced economies in that it provides a clear pathway to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Most other NDCs will need to be improved upon within the next decade in order for countries to meet their mid-century net-zero targets. The UK’s new NDC, once enshrined into law in June 2021, will be the first target announced by an advanced economy that is compatible with a mid-century carbon neutrality goal.
The UK has reason to be optimistic. In recent years, the country has been able to aggressively scale back its use of fossil fuels, especially coal. Meanwhile, it has expanded its renewable energy capacity accordingly. Electricity output from renewable sources began to outpace fossil fuels in 2019, while current policy projections suggest a further scaling up of renewable energy to approximately 52% of generation by 2030. While the renewable energy market is growing across the board, offshore wind is becoming a particularly exciting and promising energy source for the UK’s future. The country has implemented policy and invested substantial sums in modernising its infrastructure and electrifying its transportation sector. The UK has also announced plans to ban fossil fuel-powered vehicles before 2035, and another ban on the installation of gas boilers in new homes from 2025.
While the outlook for the UK is mostly positive, especially when compared to the efforts of its peers, the country has yet to implement sufficient actionable policy and measures to match its mid-century carbon neutrality goal. Its updated NDC provides a clear pathway to this target, but still lacks clear roadmaps in several distinct sectors, notably agriculture. The UK’s newfound independence from the EU frees it to pursue its own climate policies and positions, but also place higher responsibilities and expectations than what is afforded to EU member states.
Climate Vulnerability & Readiness
The ND-GAIN Country Index by the University of Notre Dame summarises a country’s vulnerability to climate change and other global challenges in combination with its readiness to improve resilience. The more vulnerable a country is, the lower their vulnerability score, while the more ready a country is to improve its resilience, the higher its readiness score will be, on a scale between 0 and 1. The United Kingdom’s scores are:
- Vulnerability: 0.30 (ranks 8th out of 192 countries).
- Readiness: 0.71 (ranks 16th out of 192 countries).
As a relatively small island nation, the United Kingdom faces fewer overall climate risks than larger countries with more diverse geographies and biological biomes. However, the severity of potential climate change impacts still leaves the UK vulnerable to serious damages. Per the UK’s 2017 Climate Risk Assessment Report, the main climate risks in the country will concern flooding and coastal change, the impact of higher temperatures on human health, water shortages, impacts on the global food system and the risk for future emergence of pests and virulent diseases.
Heavier rainfall is expected to be the main cause of flooding in the UK as a result of climate change. More precipitation combined with sea level rise and accompanying storm surges will proliferate extensive damages to the UK’s coastal areas, with less intensive flooding occurring inland. Since the UK has a relatively low elevation, both along its coastline as well as further towards its interior, the country’s vulnerabilities to sea level rise and flooding are more pronounced. Given the UK’s prosperity, small area and low population relative to the country’s wealth, it can be considered relatively well-prepared for the physical impacts of climate change. While flooding and coastal damage will temporarily disrupt economic activity and transportation, the UK has the ability to invest in coastal defences and fast infrastructural repairs.
More pressing concern will presumably emerge from climate change’s impacts overseas. The UK largely relies on food supply chains and other resources imported from abroad, where the impacts of high temperatures, droughts and crop failure will be more pronounced. While the UK will also experience some instances of water shortages and severely high temperatures, it will be nowhere near as intense as in countries where the UK sources most of its basic resources. This could lead to food price spikes and severe economic disruption nationwide.
Environmental Policies by Sector
- Per the UK’s National Grid Electricity System Operator, low carbon energy sources reportedly made up almost 80% of the UK’s power mix in 2021.
- Between 2012 and 2017, the share of renewable energy in the UK’s renewable energy supply grew by 88.6%.
The UK has very recently vastly improved its energy policies to set the country on an ambitious yet achievable course to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, one of the only advanced economies with a clear policy roadmap to doing so. Around 80% of the UK’s energy is currently generated by renewable sources, primarily wind, solar and, to a lesser extent, nuclear. Fossil fuels have been actively phased out in recent years, with the UK’s coal industry having been the primary target. Coal’s share in the energy mix has dwindled to as low as 0% in recent years, never rising above 2%, and the government plans to retire all coal-powered plants in the country by 2025 at the latest. The UK is now beginning to target eliminating natural gas, which still accounts for around 10% of the national energy share.
The government plans to accomplish this through a combination of maintaining small investments in nuclear energy, which in 2021 stood at around 16% of the energy share, while massively ramping up the national capacity for wind and solar, with a particular emphasis on the former. The UK aims to increase offshore wind capacity from 30GW to 40GW by 2030, an increase that would enable all homes to be electrified in the next ten years. This project will require a substantial investment of around £160 million, but will also create thousands of jobs and is essential to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
- Per the UK Department for Transport, transportation was the single highest emitting sector of domestic greenhouse gases in the country in 2018, accounting for 28% of emissions that year, or a total of 451 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.
- Transport emissions in the UK overall have decreased by 3% between 1980 and 2018.
- Per data provided from the World Bank, there are 519 motor vehicles for every 1 000 residents in the UK.
- Per the UK Transport Decarbonisation Plan, the government aims to achieve net-zero emissions from its railway industry by 2050, and from its aviation sector by 2040.
Partly as a result of the UK’s policies and investments towards decarbonising its energy sector over the past decade, transportation has recently eclipsed energy as the country’s highest emitting sector.
The UK government has implemented target dates to phase out sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030, all hybrid cars and vans by 2035, and all non-zero emission road vehicles by 2040 at the latest. It also aims to rapidly expand consumer accessibility to electric vehicles and create a ubiquitous network of charging stations. Personal cars and taxis account for over half of all emissions linked to the transportation sector, so bringing affordable electric personal vehicles to market is essential. Various government programs are intended to facilitate widespread adoption of electric vehicles. While the total number of electric vehicles on the road remain low proportional to the total number of cars, especially where pure battery electric vehicles are concerned, trends are positive for the EV industry. Per the monitoring agency and charity Royal Automobile Club Foundation, around 280 000 new electric vehicles or hybrids were registered in 2020, as opposed to around 210 000 petrol-based vehicles.
The recently released Transport Decarbonisation Plan includes proposals to improve public transport networks, encourage walkability and cyclability in cities, integrate carbon reduction solutions with transportation infrastructure and achieve net-zero emissions from both the railway and aviation industries by 2050. This plan is the first of its kind in the world, with highly ambitious goals, although a notable caveat is that its proposals will at least in part rely on technologies that are not currently available.
- 28.74% of the UK’s territorial spaces are protected, as are 44.2% of marine areas, per the NGO Protected Planet.
- Per the Yale Environmental Performance Index, 83.9% of the UK’s population is urbanised.
- Yale EPI ranked the UK 4th in the world in terms of ecosystem vitality, which measures how well countries preserve, protect, and enhance their ecosystems and the services they provide.
- Per Global Forest Watch, the UK possessed 3.53 million hectares of natural forest in 2010, extending over 20% of its land area. By 2020, it had lost 4.15 thousand hectares of natural forest.
Despite ambitious announcements, the UK has been unable to reach several biodiversity conservation targets imposed by the UN. Per the British charity RSPB, the UK has failed to meet 17 of the 20 UN biodiversity conservation targets agreed upon at the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity, and has even backslid on some targets. The UK plays a prominent role in several global conservation initiatives, including establishing the global 30×30 target to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, but funding for biodiversity conservation has fallen substantially over the last decade. More funding for biodiversity protection has been forcing its way through Parliament since late 2020 as part of the UK’s green recovery plans, but it is unclear whether this increased funding for conservation purposes will be sustained.
- Per the global NGO Earth’s Endangered Creatures, the UK possesses 88 endangered species, of which 14 are plant species and 74 are animal species.
- Per the research group Animal Protection Index, the UK has enshrined legislation that recognises the sentience of animal species, and was in fact the first country in the world to do so.
The UK has enacted several pieces of legislation to ensure animal welfare, including bans on fur farming and mandatory monitoring of slaughterhouses and other facilities used to house animals for commercial purposes. The UK has also outlawed most forms of illicit or unregulated wildlife trade, including a 2018 near-total ban on dealing in items containing elephant ivory within the UK as well as export from or import to the country. While some areas of improvement remain, including a lack of transparency surrounding animal treatment for research purposes, the UK has decidedly performed better than counterpart governments in the EU in pushing through animal welfare legislation.
- Per IQAir, in 2020 the UK averaged 8.30µg/m³ (micrograms of air pollutants per cubic metre of air). The UK ranks 92nd out of the 106 countries and territories where data was collected.
The transportation sector is the main generator of air pollutants in the UK, with emissions from power generation, industry and farming being the main cause of air pollution in rural areas. To counter the adverse effects of air pollution on public health, the UK hopes that its efforts to phase out internal combustion engine car sales by 2035 will significantly reduce air pollution in the country. Per the recently released Transport Decarbonisation Plan, the UK also plans on achieving net-zero emissions from its railway and aviation industries by 2050, although it should be noted that these targets rely at least in part on the emergence of future technologies and sustainable fuels. Should the government be successful in achieving these goals, it will significantly reduce the health impacts of air pollution on British citizens, which currently causes around 40 000 premature deaths a year, per the Royal College of Physicians.