The United Kingdom has been on a purposeful path toward a less carbon-intensive energy sector since passing the UK Climate Change Act in 2008. But, questions exist regarding the achievability of future carbon targets.

The controversy was highlighted during discussions of the UK’s 4th carbon budget, which applies to the years 2023-27. These carbon budgets are legally binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions that set interim goals along the way to the overall target of reducing the nation’s anthropogenic carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

To date, the United Kingdom has met the targets set out in its carbon budgets, moving the country closer to its 2050 goal of an 80% reduction in human-produced carbon emissions compared to 1990 levels. The 4th carbon budget was set in 2011, with the target of a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2027 (compared to 1990 levels). However, the government decided that it would review progress toward emissions reductions in the European Union and potentially revise this budget in 2014. To that end, the government decided not to relax the targets in October 2014 in response to recommendations.

But, what can the UK do to both reduce and respond to future uncertainties in their pathway to decarbonisation?

Quite a lot, according to a team of researchers with the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC). In their synthesis report “UK Energy Strategies Under Uncertainty” this team presented their findings related to key technical, economic, political, and social uncertainties that could significantly impact the UK’s low carbon transition over the next 15 years. They also included a list of steps that could be taken to either reduce the uncertainty itself or its potential impacts.

Overall, according to Professor Jim Watson - the report’s lead author and Research Director of the UKERC – the team came to seven major conclusions (paraphrased below):

1. Importance of electricity decarbonisation in the shorter term

Reducing the carbon footprint of the power sector by 2030 is essential if the UK is to achieve carbon reduction goals at a minimum cost. This process will require large amounts of capital investment. There is no shortage of available capital in absolute terms for these investments. However, electricity decarbonisation projects must compete with other investment options in order to secure this funding. (Recommended actions: changes to policy frameworks, market structures and business models to attract that capital to the UK power sector)

2. Limited existing technology options for large-scale, low-carbon electricity

There are currently a limited number of viable large-scale and low-carbon electricity generation technologies. Furthermore, all of these options face economic, technical and political challenges. According to the report, “given the financial resources required and the political tensions with some of these technologies, it will be tough for the government and industry to maintain momentum on all of them. (Recommended action: ensure evidence-based prioritization of technologies in decision-making)

3. For heating in buildings as well as transportation, electrification might not be the best route

It is not yet clear if electrification of transportation and heating in buildings is the best route for reducing emissions in these sectors. (Recommended actions: emphasize continuing experimentation, demonstration and learning for each potential decarbonisation option, including both technical and non-technical factors (e.g. consumer attitudes, business models, regulatory frameworks)

4. Energy efficiency can buy time

Efficiency projects are an effective way to reduce consumers’ energy bills and can buy time and assist in meeting carbon goals if other decarbonisation options struggle. (Recommended action: prioritize energy efficiency in short-term).

5. Public engagement is essential

Engagement with people and communities is an essential component of the UK’s low carbon transition. This engagement should be genuine in order to ensure that public attitudes relating to changes in the energy system – and not just to individual technologies – are taken into account in this transition. This approach could not only increase the chances of public support for change, it could also open up possibilities for compromise. (Recommended action: Increase genuine public engagement, focus public engagement on how the shift to more sustainable energy systems should be organized and paid for)

6. Delay is risky

According to the report, scaling back the UK’s low carbon ambitions would be quite risky, not only due to prolonged reliance on a fossil fuel based energy system but also due to the resulting exposure of consumers and the UK economy to the potential impacts of high fossil fuel prices. However, the current low carbon transition plan has several natural resource issues – including controversies related to shale gas and biomass – that also important and may limit the extent to which they can be developed and used. (Recommended action: presumably to avoid delay in carbon emissions reductions)

7. Implications for ecosystems are unclear

The transition to a low carbon energy system will have uncertain implications for ecosystems, both in the UK and globally. While this report presents evident suggesting that low carbon technologies will have fewer and/or less serious impacts than fossil fuels, it also states that the evidence base is weak and that significant further research is needed. (Recommended action: significant further research to strengthen evidence of ecosystem impacts).

The UK will propose legislation for the country’s 5th carbon budget in 2016. This budget will specify legally binding targets for carbon reductions between 2028-2032. As this process is underway, it will be interesting to see the role of future uncertainties and the current state of the energy system will impact the country’s decisions.

To hear Professor Watson's extended comments on this UKERC report, see the video (link) of his recent talk at University College London (Disclaimer: Melissa C. Lott is a PhD student at UCL and was behind the camera at the UCL event featured in this YouTube video).

Photo credit: Graphic of the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland via Creative Commmons/Wikimedia Commons.