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on the environment

United Kingdom

SOER Country

Climate change mitigation (United Kingdom)

Why should we care about this issue

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 29 Nov 2010


Climate change is the greatest environmental challenge facing the world today. The effects will be felt globally, as rising sea levels threaten the existence of some small island states and put millions of people at risk. Temperature increases, drought and flooding will affect people's health and way of life, and cause the irreversible loss of many species of plants and animals. The UK Government’s goal is to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to avoid dangerous climate change, and to adapt to the climate change that is now inevitable.


UK climate trends[1]

·         Central England Temperature (CET) has risen by about 1°C since 1980. Eight of the ten warmest years recorded have been since 1990 with 2006 being the warmest year on record. It is likely that there has been a significant influence from human activity on the recent warming of CET. Average annual temperature for all regions of the UK has risen by between 0.4°C and 0.9°C since 1914.

·         Severe windstorms around the UK have become more frequent in the past few decades, although not above the frequency in the 1920s.

·         Sea level around the UK rose by about 1mm/yr in the 20th century, corrected for land movement. The rate for the 1990s and 2000s has been higher, up to 3mm/yr, which is closer to the global average for these years. Sea-surface temperatures around the UK coast have risen by about 0.7°C over the past three decades.

·         Annual mean precipitation over England and Wales has not changed significantly since records began in 1766. Scotland is on average 20 per cent wetter than it was in 1961. Seasonal rainfall is highly variable, but appears to have decreased in summer and increased in winter.

·         All regions of the UK have experienced more winter rainfall from heavy precipitation events. In summer, all regions except North East England and Northern Scotland show decreases in rainfall.

The UK Climate Projections (UKCP09)[2] give projections of future changes to the climate in the UK to the end of this century. The projections are based on simulations from climate models. The Projections will help organisations to take informed, cost-effective and timely decisions on preparing for the changing climate. The data is modelled for three different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios (high, medium and low), which are based on scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC).

The types of climate information provided are:

-       observed climate data (historical information about temperature, rainfall, storminess, sea surface temperatures and sea level)

-       future climate projections (for temperature, rainfall, air pressure, cloud and humidity)

-       future marine and coastal projections (for sea level rise, storm surge, sea surface and sub-surface temperature, salinity, currents, and waves).


Key findings

The subset of key findings presented below is for a medium emissions pathway and may be exceeded if we do not secure an ambitious, lasting global deal to limit emissions.

Average UK summer temperature is likely to rise by 3-4°C by the 2080s

In general, greater warming is expected in the southeast than the northwest of the UK, and there may be more warming in the summer and autumn than winter and spring. Projections of average summer temperature change in the South East get larger over time, with projected increases in average summer temperatures of 1.6°C during the 2020s, 2.7°C by the 2040s and 3.9°C by the 2080s.

Average summer rainfall across the UK may decrease by 11 per cent to 27 per cent by the 2080s

But while this is the average, there will be a big change in rainfall between the seasons, with winters becoming wetter and summers drier.

Under the medium emissions scenario, by the 2080s, rainfall in the South West may be 23 per cent lower in the summer, and 16 per cent higher in the North East in the winter.

Sea levels are expected to rise

The central estimate for sea level rise (taking into account land movement) highlights that sea level is projected to rise by 36cm in London by the 2080s.

Extreme weather events are likely to become more common

High summer temperatures and dry conditions are likely to become more common. For example, research published by the Met Office Hadley Centre suggests that the summer heat wave we experienced in 2003 could become a normal event by the 2040s; by the 2060s, such a summer would be considered cool according to some models. And though very cold winters will become increasingly rare, extreme winter rainfall will become more frequent.

Though these projections give us an idea of how weather patterns will change, we cannot predict the future climate of the UK exactly - partly because we can't be certain how emission levels will change, and also because no climate model can give a perfect representation of the climate.

[1]The climate of the United Kingdom and recent trends, UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP), Jan 2009



The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Not applicable.

The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

The UK population in 2007 was 61 million with nearly 85 per cent of the population being resident in England. The UK population is predicted to rise to over 70 million by 2030.

The UK is currently the world’s sixth largest economy ($2.7 trillion in 2008), its eighth largest exporter of goods ($438 billion in 2007) and second largest exporter of services ($273 billion in 2007).

The UK economy grew at an annual average rate of 3 per cent between 1997 and 2007, with GDP per capita rising 27 per cent over that period. Following the succession of shocks that hit the world’s economies in 2007 and 2008, the UK, like many advanced economies, moved into recession. The Pre-Budget Report 2009 forecast is for the UK economy to contract by 4¾ per cent in 2009. As macroeconomic policy stimulus builds and credit conditions ease, the economy is forecast to pick up progressively through 2010 and 2011.

Primary energy demand in the UK is projected to decrease to 205 mtoe in 2020, compared to 236 mtoe in 2007, caused by reductions in demand for all fuels except renewables and waste. The downward trend in demand for coal and gas is due to the squeeze on fossil fuel use in power generation, while demand for nuclear energy decreases then increases in line with the pattern of power station closures and subsequent new build. In contrast, the Renewable Energy Strategy is projected to lead to an increase in demand for renewables and waste to 27 mtoe in 2020, up from 4 mtoe in 2007.



In 2009, the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions were provisionally estimated to be 574.6 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent. This was 9 per cent lower than the 2008 figure of 628.3 million tonnes. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas, accounting for about 85 per cent of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2008, the latest year for which final results are available. In 2009, UK net emissions of carbon dioxide were provisionally estimated to be 480.9 million tonnes. This was 10 per cent lower than the 2008 figure of 532.8 million tonnes. The decrease resulted primarily from a significant fall in energy consumption, combined with fuel switching from coal to nuclear for electricity generation. As the UK economy contracted during 2009, this resulted in an overall reduction in demand for electricity, together with lower fossil fuel consumption by businesses and households.


UK greenhouse gas emissions: 1990-2009 (provisional)

  UK greenhouse gas emissions: 1990-2009 (provisional)

Carbon dioxide is the main man-made contributor to global warming. The UK contributes about 2 per cent to global man-made emissions, which, according to the IPCC, were estimated to be 38 billion tonnes carbon dioxide in 2004. Carbon dioxide accounted for about 85 per cent of the UK’s man-made greenhouse gas emissions in 2008, methane accounted for about 8 per cent, and nitrous oxide about 5 per cent.

UK carbon dioxide emissions by source: 1990-2008

UK carbon dioxide emissions by source: 1990-2008


UK methane emissions by source: 1990-2008


UK methane emissions by source: 1990-2008


UK nitrous oxide emissions by source: 1990-2008

UK nitrous oxide emissions by source: 1990-2008

Emissions from energy supply currently account for about 35 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2008. The UK’s energy supply incorporates coal, petroleum, natural gas, nuclear power and renewable energy. Over the next two decades much of the nuclear and coal powered electricity generating capacity in the UK is scheduled for closure.

Emissions from the business sector were about 14 per cent below 1990 levels in 2008, representing about 15 per cent of total emissions. Emissions from the residential sector have increased by 3 per cent  while public sector fell by 25 per cent over the same period, and now represent 13 per cent and 2 per cent respectively of total emissions.

Transport currently accounts for 21 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2008[1]. This is an increase from 6 per cent in 1990. Car use has increased as disposable income has risen, against a backdrop of little change in the real cost of motoring and rising real costs of public transport fares. Although the average number of trips people make has declined over the last ten years, the distance travelled and the time spent travelling has increased.

Waste management currently accounts for 4 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions[2]. Waste produced in England is currently disposed of at landfill sites, with the remainder treated by other means, including waste-to-energy, recycling and composting. In 2009/2010 households in England recycled nearly  40 per cent of their waste, continuing the long-term increasing trend over the last 10 years[3].

Agriculture currently accounts for 8 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. The total area of agricultural land in the UK at June 2008 was around 18.7 million hectares[4].The reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy in 2000, which created an integrated EU Rural Development Policy, provided the basis for a shift of emphasis from production support towards environmental and rural development.

[1]2008  emissions by source, and including those resulting from domestic aviation



The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

·         The latest projections[1] suggest, that using central assumptions net UK greenhouse gas emissions, which include the net impact of allowances purchased or sold through the EU ETS, could be 36 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. This central projection indicates that the UK will be well within its Kyoto greenhouse gas emissions reductions target (to reduce emissions to 12.5 per cent below base year levels by 2008-2012) and will be on a path to an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 by being within the emissions limits set by the first three carbon budgets (see paragraph 18 below) for the periods 2008-12, 2013-17 and 2018-2022.


The projected UK emissions of greenhouse gases on net carbon account basis (including the purchase of allowances within the EU ETS) 1990-2025

The projected UK emissions of greenhouse gases on net carbon account basis (including the purchase of allowances within the EU ETS) 1990-2025

Central Greenhouse Gas Emissions in MtCO2e

Central Greenhouse Gas Emissions in MtCO2e

Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

The Stern Review noted that the costs of moving to a low-carbon economy could be minimised with a policy framework that is credible, predictable and flexible, and that is built around three elements:

·         establishing a carbon price associated with the emissions of greenhouse gases, so that businesses and individuals are able to factor the cost of damage caused by climate change into their decisions;

·         encouraging innovation in low-carbon technologies and infrastructure through policies that address separately the market failures associated with innovation; and

removing or overcoming barriers that may prevent or deter individuals and businesses from taking cost-effective action to reduce their emissions, particularly on energy efficiency

The Climate Change Act 2008[1] has created a new approach to managing and responding to climate change in the UK. At the heart of the Act is a legally binding target to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to at least 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, to be achieved through action at home and abroad. To drive progress towards this target, the Act has introduced five year “carbon budgets”, which define the emissions pathway to the 2050 target by limiting the total greenhouse gas emissions allowed in each consecutive five year period.

The first three carbon budgets[2] – for 2008-12, 2013-17, and 2018-22 – were set in law in May 2009. In setting them, the Government took into account the advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) established under the Act to advise the Government on setting carbon budgets and to report to Parliament on the progress being made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The CCC published its second annual progress report[3] at the end of June 2010 and the Government’s response was published in October 2010.[4]  

The Low Carbon Transition Plan[5], published in July 2009, set out how these carbon budgets will be met, as required under the Climate Change Act . By 2020, it is estimated that UK emissions will be reduced by more than one third as required to meet the 2020 reduction target in the Act - to reduce emissions by at least 34 per cent below the 1990 baseline. The carbon budgets will be tightened further in the event that the EU adopts a 30 per cent 2020 emissions reduction target.  

The  Renewable Energy Strategy[6], published alongside the Transition Plan, set out how the UK will increase the use of renewable energy for heat, electricity and transport to meet the target to ensure 15 per cent of our energy comes from renewable sources by 2020. This target is very ambitious; it is almost a seven-fold increase in the share of renewables in scarcely more than a decade. Our lead scenario suggests that the UK could see more than 30 per cent of our electricity being generated from renewables, up from about 5½ per cent today; 12 per cent of our heat being generated from renewables, up from very low levels today; and, 10 per cent of transport energy coming from renewables, up from the current level of 2½ per cent of road transport energy consumption.

All sectors of the economy will need to play a part in meeting carbon budgets, through decarbonising electricity generation, improving energy efficiency in buildings and industry, and improving the fuel efficiency of road vehicles. The Government has acted to further strengthen the policy framework in a number of areas and set out thirty two action points on climate and energy policy in the first ever Annual Energy Statement made in July 2010.[7]  These  included a commitment to seek EU agreement to adopt a 30 per cent emissions reduction target by 2020, tackling the barriers for investment in energy efficiency measures in both homes and businesses by launching a “Green Deal” and intent to roll out “smart meters” more rapidly than previously announced, an electricity market reform project, with a public consultation in autumn 2010 to assess the role that carbon price support, emissions performance standards, a revised renewables obligation, Feed-in Tariffs, capacity mechanisms and other interventions could play in a coherent, durable, system that supports the delivery of an affordable, secure, low carbon energy mix. In October 2010, under the auspices of the comprehensive spending review, the Government announced investment of up to £1 billion in a commercial scale carbon capture and storage demonstration project,  investment in wind turbine research and development, and the upgrading of offshore wind manufacturing facilities at ports sites as well as increased incentives for low carbon energy generation through the Renewable Heat Incentive – all aimed at assisting in the delivery of long term decarbonisation of the UK economy.

Looking ahead, the Government announced that it will set out in full how each individual Government department’s policies will contribute to meeting emission reduction targets and carbon budgets in a government wide carbon plan to be published in 2011.

While the UK Government has overall responsibility for ensuring a programme is in place to deliver the UK’s Kyoto target and carbon budgets, the Devolved Administrations – the Scottish Government (delivery plan), Welsh Assembly Government (strategy), and the Northern Ireland Executive (strategy) – play their part in meeting these targets. The approach taken by each administration will differ, drawing on the range of policies at their disposal.




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