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United Kingdom

Country profile (United Kingdom)

What distinguishes the country?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 03 Dec 2010

General characteristics

The United Kingdom is an island state consisting of four countries: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and spanning an archipelago including Great Britain, the northeastern part of the island of Ireland, and many small islands.  The total area of the UK is approximately 243,610 square kilometres (94,060 sq miles).

In 2008, natural population growth overtook net migration as the main contributor to population growth for the first time since 1998.  England is one of the most densely populated countries in the world with an estimated population density of 401 people resident per square kilometre. Density is considerably lower in Scotland (67 per sq km), Wales (145 per sq km) and Northern Ireland (133 per sq km).

The United Kingdom has a temperate climate, with plentiful rainfall all year round. The temperature varies with the seasons but seldom drops below −10 °C (14.0 °F) or rises above 35 °C (95 °F).  Atlantic currents, warmed by the Gulf Stream, bring mild winters, especially in the west. Summers are warmest in the south east of England, being closest to the European mainland, and coolest in the north. 

The United Kingdom is a leading global trading nation, being the second largest exporter and third largest importer of commercial services, and the tenth largest exporter and sixth largest importer of merchandise. 

The United Kingdom has low unemployment (with an unemployment rate well below the European Union average) and is one of the most competitive locations in Europe for business and personal taxation.  Despite suffering a deep and long recession, the United Kingdom remains the most attractive destination for FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) into Europe. Job creation only fell by 1 per cent between 2008 and 2009 and the UK attracted 16 per cent of the jobs created by FDI across Europe

Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each has its own government or Executive, led by a First Minister, and a devolved, unicameral legislature. England, the largest country of the United Kingdom, has no devolved executive or legislature.

Environmental governance

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is the Government department with responsibility for environmental protection, food production and standards, agriculture, fisheries and rural communities. Defra also leads for the UK within the EU on agriculture, fisheries, environment and sustainable development policies. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), was formed in 2008, and assumed responsibilities for climate change mitigation. Climate change adaptation remains a Defra responsibility. 

Environmental policy is a devolved issue, meaning that the responsibilities are handled separately by the Devolved Administrations- Scottish Government, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively.

‘Delivery bodies’ work with the Government departments to ensure the strategic environmental objectives are achieved. These are either owned or sponsored by Government, or separate but work in close partnership. 

Environmental research and monitoring

There are over 250 organisations in the UK that are involved with undertaking environmental observations. The National Environment Research Council (NERC) is a non-departmental public body funded by numerous government departments and the EU to instigate research that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world providing independent research and training in environmental sciences.  The Environment Research Funders Forum (ERFF) is a group that aims to improve the effectiveness and coherence of environmental research and monitoring in the UK, and the UK Environmental Observation Framework (UK EOF) intends to produce a strategic view of UK investment in environmental research.


What have been the major societal developments?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 28 Nov 2010

The Economy

UK economic performance in the 1950-1980 period is indicative of relative decline, as broadly similar economies in Europe developed output per head that substantially exceeded the level of the UK without any obvious advantages in resources, size or location. In the 1980s the UK economy performed relatively well compared with its industrial peers, particularly in Europe.   The UK’s ability to secure foreign direct investment and to sustain more liberal and flexible labour and other markets enabled the UK to perform as a dynamic European economy and to cope better with problems of high unemployment and lack of industrial competitiveness.


The period between 1950 and 1980s saw the importance of oil fuelling a shift in travel modes to the private car.  This led to increased access to the countryside for leisure and residence, further accretion of suburbs and the rapid growth in out of town supermarkets and convenience stores.  The number of cars grew from 5.5 million in 1960 to nearly 20 million in 1990.  Since 1980 car traffic has continued to rise from 215 to 402 billion vehicle kilometres in 2008 - an increase of 87 per cent.  The emission of greenhouse gases from road transport has increased from 109 million tonnes in 1980 to 117 million tonnes in 2008.  This represents about a fifth of all GHG emissions in the UK. There has also been a growth in air travel.  In 2008, UK residents made 69 million overseas visits compared with 18 million in 1980, the number of passengers using UK airports has more than quadrupled between 1980 and 2008.

Housing, Land Use and Planning

Growth in the real income of citizens has stimulated demand for private home ownership from 1945 to today. A total of 13 million houses have been built in the UK between 1959 and 2009.  Since the 1980s government significantly reduced local authority house building and this contributed to a fall in public sector completions.  Targets have been set for all new homes to be zero carbon by 2016 and the government is committed to promoting localism by meeting people’s housing aspirations.

The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act  (TCPA) set the tone for the use of the environment and its basic provisions still guide the nation’s spatial layouts. The TCPA subjected all development to local authority approval. Several cities and towns took the opportunity to create hectares of green belt around their built-up areas. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act (2004) resulted in a number of substantial changes to the planning system, including using the system to support sustainable communities, environmental considerations and address climate change. The Planning Act 2008 introduced a new system for decisions on applications to build nationally significant infrastructure planning in England and Wales, alongside further reforms to the town and country planning system and the introduction of a Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL).


In 1948, UK’s primary energy was coal delivering 129 million tonnes oil equivalent (mtoe).  In 1952, the Great London Smog claimed between 4,000 and 12,000 lives and resulted in the Clean Air Act.  The act created Smoke Control Areas where the use of certain fuels was prohibited.  By 1970 oil became as great a supplier of energy as coal.  In 1978 , coal supplied 73 mtoe and oil 97 mtoe. The 1970s also saw the rise in the use of cleaner natural gas from North Sea production. 

Electricity consumption accounted for only 3 per cent of final consumption in 1948.  By 1978 this had risen to 12 per cent.  In 2008, this has risen still further to 19 per cent.  In the 1960s and 1970s the growth in capacity in renewable energy was quite modest and supplied mainly through hydro-electric schemes.  Generating electricity from renewable sources has more than trebled in the last 15 years. Today renewables represent 5.5 per cent of all generated electricity.  Wind and solar power, and to a lesser extent biomass, constitute the bulk of this increase.

The first nuclear power station began to supply the national grid in 1962.  By 1970, 9 per cent of electricity was from nuclear generation and by 1998 this had risen to 28 per cent. This has fallen in recent years through maintenance and closure of the older nuclear plants.


The basis of current agricultural policy was the Agricultural Act of 1947.  This called for a stable and efficient agricultural industry capable of producing a large part of the nation’s food consistently, at a minimum price and achieved through guaranteed prices for agricultural goods. 

By the late 1950s the rising costs and falling world prices provided the spur to improve efficiency.  This coincided with changes in husbandry in the 1960s which shifted the industry into a period of intensification.  Also in 1950s and 1960s new synthetic biocides and cereal strains responsive to nitrogen fertilisers became available.  From the mid-1960s, UK agriculture was operated under some sort of expansion plan.  Entry to the EEC in 1973 was seen as a logical extension of this policy. Today the taxpayers are spending in the region of £3 billion annually on agricultural support in the UK mainly through price support regimes provided by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

In 2008 the total agricultural area of UK was some 77 per cent of the total land area (excluding inland water). There has been a gradual decline in fertiliser use in UK. This is driven by a reduction in application rates on grass, which has fallen by a third over 10 years.

Habitats and Biodiversity

The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 established the concept of bringing together conservation, recreation and economic activity to an area as a National Park and enshrined the philosophy of habitat conservation through site designation.  In 1951, the first national park in the Peak District was established.  Today there are 15 designated national parks in the UK.

From the 1970s, it became increasingly obvious that significant habitat loss was still taking place. Due to pressures the Government enacted the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which strengthens species protection and brought legislation for bird protection in line with the relevant EC directive.  In 1994 the UK produced its first Biodiversity Action Plan.  In 2000 it ratified the ‘Ecosystems approach’ defined as a strategy for integrated management of land, air water and living resources to promote conservation and sustainable use that recognises cultural and social needs.  The latest action plan was produced in 2007

Further reading

  • Simmons, I.G (2001) An Environmental History of Great Britain : From 10,000 years ago to the Present.  Edinburgh University Press.
  • Clapp, B.W (1994)  An Environmental History of Britain since the Industrial Revolution.  Longman Group UK Limited.


What are the main drivers of environmental pressures?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Climate change and ecosystem service degradation will have huge consequences: the 2006 Stern Report to the Government on the economics of climate change calculates the cost of inaction to be between 5–20 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2050.

The key issues that are either currently, or are predicted to pose, a significant threat to the highest proportion of priority species and habitats are:

·        Habitat loss (particularly due to agriculture or changes in management practices),

·        Infrastructure development (mainly housing infrastructure and development on the coast)

·        Climate change including adaptation and mitigation actions taken in other sectors.

In mid-2008 population was estimated at 61 million, and is predicted to rise to over 70 million by 2030.

Emissions from energy supply currently account for about 35 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. 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.

Transport currently accounts for 21 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is an increase from 16 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 – Transport Survey GB.

What are the foreseen developments?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 28 Nov 2010

Attitudes to the Environment

There is a risk of lack of public engagement with and experience of the natural world, especially for younger, urban generations, leading to a reduced concern over the environment.
By 2011, the UK is expected to return to economic growth and expand by 2.5 per cent (IMF 2010 – July Data). A renewed period of strong and sustained economic growth could reinforce over-consumption and erode a shift towards more sustainable lifestyles and consumption patterns.

Energy and Resources

Demand for water is extremely high leading to concerns over maintaining the water resources available for people and the environment.

Clean technologies such as electric motors and solar photovoltaic are highly dependent on the availability of rare earth elements (REEs). Demand for REEs is forecasted to grow by 65 per cent until 2012 (2008 levels).

Until 2030, demand for sustainable materials will continue to increase, leading to greater competition for bio-resources.

The utilisation of waste as a resource will continue to diversify. For example energy from waste is expected to account for 25 per cent of municipal waste by 2020 compared to 10 per cent in 2007 (SITA 2008). Biomass-fuelled technologies could eventually provide up to 30 per cent of the UK’s renewable electricity and heat generation (SITA 2008). 

Adaptation and policy measures taken in other sectors (e.g. expansion of biofuels, utilisation of biomass), will be at increasing risk of being in conflict with conservation and biodiversity objectives

Evolving Land-Use Patterns and Priorities

Food production has widespread impacts on ecosystems and land-use. In the long-term, competition for land and pressures to safeguard the environment will grow, increasing support for novel agricultural systems that use resources and land more efficiently and sustainably.
As pressures upon, and conflicts around, land use increase (energy vs. food production, agriculture vs. urbanisation), policy mechanisms to help identify priorities, which reflect changing regional and global demands, will become more important. 

Nano- and Bio-technology Revolution

The growth in the use of nanoparticles could lead to nanopollution and new challenges for waste water management, and potentially new and unknown risks to both human health and the environment.
R&D in biotechnology will enable the development of new ‘smart’ and sustainable materials. The monitoring and life-cycle evaluation of these new technologies, including GMOs, will be vital to ensure that they are adequately tested for environmental impacts.

New Patterns of Pollution

Although significant reductions in emissions for many major pollutants have taken place or are planned, risks remain in a range of areas, including excess acidification and eutrophication as well as pollution driven by low-carbon technologies, renewables, and nanotechnology.
Globally, rising energy demand, population growth and urbanisation will continue to increase the risk of widespread pollution. Urbanisation will place further pressures on sewage infrastructure and water demand, leading to higher levels of artificial fertilisation in aquatic environments. Climate change effects will increase levels of air pollution and exaggerate the impact of toxic chemicals on the environment.

Climate Change 

According to the central estimate in the UK Climate Change Predictions (2009), summer average temperature in England will increase by 2.5ºC until 2050 (medium emissions scenario). Over the coming decades: the frequency and intensity of storms are likely to increase; there will be more areas affected by drought and water scarcity; there will be more and hotter heat waves in temperate zones; ecosystems will be affected and biodiversity will be hit; certain diseases could become more common; sea levels are likely to rise (also level of shoreline retreat); rainfall patterns will change (more in winter, less in summer) and there will be increased ocean acidification.

The UK increasingly relies on overseas manufacturing to meet growing consumer demand. This could continue to cause an “off-shoring” of GHG emissions and other environmental impacts through the consumption of products and services produced outside the UK.


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

European Environment Agency (EEA)
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