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How the UK is tackling emissions

How the UK is tackling emissions

Paving the way towards a greener, more sustainable future, Anne Shibata Casselman looks at how the UK is taking ownership for climate change and successfully tackling emissions

Having reaped the modernising benefits of the Industrial Revolution, it's now time for the UK to take responsibility for its role in global warming and continue pioneering the way towards tackling emissions for a more sustainable future. 

Sustainable Scotland 

Beatrice Offshore Windfarm LtdCredit: Beatrice Offshore Windfarm Ltd

It’s a brisk and sunny day in March 2022, in the coastal town of Wick, Scotland. From shore, you can see the sparkling waters of Wick Harbour and, farther out, the Beatrice Offshore Wind Farm, its giant propellers spinning hypnotically in the steady winds of Moray Firth.

The wind farm is named after the defunct Beatrice oil field, on which it is situated. The only signs of its earlier incarnation are the rusting oil platforms that sit at the feet of towering turbines nearly 200 metres tall; up close, you can hear the whooooooossshhh of the giant blades, steady as a heartbeat.

The gleaming turbines, 84 in all, are pumping renewable electricity into the United Kingdom’s national grid. A single full rotation of one turbine’s blades churns out enough power to run a home for nearly a day. 

"A single rotation of one turbine’s blades churns out enough power to run a home for nearly a day"

Zoom out and you’ll find evidence of a wider transformation. The Beatrice wind farm has two new siblings: the adjacent Moray East, which came online last year, and its neighbour, Moray West, which aims to be fully operational by early 2025. 

Renewable power 

solar panels on house at night  Credit: MAXSHOT

Just north of Wick, four undersea tidal turbines are being tested. In 2021, Scotland’s first hybrid-electric plane began running trial flights between Wick and the Orkney Islands

Also north of the town, SSE, the energy giant that owns part of the Beatrice wind farm, is building a converter station to feed renewable power to the Shetland Islands. And SSE has refurbished two derelict harbour buildings to use as the wind farm’s operation and maintenance base. Two-thirds of the workers in the base’s control room moved over from jobs in oil and gas. 

The way many locals power their homes has changed, too. On a sunny day, solar panels on roofs run basic appliances. And, thanks to government incentives, some people have replaced water heaters with air-to-water heat pumps, making a further dent in their electricity bills.

The sustainable revolution 

This montage, playing out in a remote corner of Scotland, embodies a remarkable fact: in just over three decades, the UK has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by almost half. Not only has it slashed emissions faster than any other industrialised country, but it’s also charging ahead to get them down to zero by 2050. 

The market has become a partner in the “net zero” goal: most manufacturing and industrial sectors in the UK are changing their conduct to pollute less and be more efficient. Over the past decade alone, electricity generated from wind power jumped 715 per cent, and there are plans to quadruple offshore wind power over the next eight years. 

"Over the past decade alone, electricity generated from wind power jumped 715 per cent"

Moreover, as of October 2022, one in five new cars sold in the UK was electric, and in 2021 the number of properties with solar panels surged 71 per cent from the previous year.

The confidence with which the country is charting its path away from oil and gas is striking, especially as the Industrial Revolution, and the large-scale practice of burning fossil fuels, began in the UK some 300 years ago.

The Climate Change Act 

cows in a field with wind turbines Credit: Friends of the Earth 

The events that brought Wick those wind farms began in the early 2000s, when, after a sustained downward trend throughout the 1990s, the UK emissions reductions decelerated. Baroness Bryony Worthington, who studied emissions data as a climate campaigner with the non-profit Friends of the Earth, concluded that there had to be a better way for government to deliver the big-picture reductions it kept promising. 

Instead of rolling out myriad tiny policies, what if it stuck to a strict emissions budget every year? That is, prescribe the annual amount of carbon the country is allowed to “spend” and force successive governments to enact policies to meet it.

Politics will always favour shorter-term wins over issues that play out in the longer term, so perhaps a bill could be written that made it easier for governments to make decisions for the next five, ten or 15 years, rather than the next political cycle. 

“Ultimately, you’re trying to create a framework in which you give civil servants the best possible chance to get the job done in the face of horrible politics,” says Worthington, currently an independent member of the House of Lords. 

It was worth a shot. In 2005, Friends of the Earth launched a national campaign asking parliamentarians to legislate rolling emissions reductions. The Big Ask campaign resonated with the public, celebrities and politicians, leading to the Climate Change Act passing virtually unanimously in 2008.

Carbon budgets and the Climate Change Committee

Today, the world is full of climate-change legislation. What set this effort apart? To begin with, it was the first to introduce carbon budgets into law. Typically, a government would pledge to lower emissions a certain amount by a distant future date.

Instead, the UK's act legislated an end goal—but also the short-term carbon budgets to get there. It’s strengthened by the Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent body of experts in the areas of climate science and policy, economics, engineering and energy production. 

CCC members not only recommend the size of the carbon budgets to Parliament, but also annually report on the progress made to meet them. They look at how industries are investing in renewables and forecast how infrastructure projects (an airport expansion, for example) might impact future carbon emissions.

If the country blows past the total carbon it is mandated to emit, the legislation has armed citizens with the ability to take the government to court. “You need that to hold their feet to the fire,” says Worthington. “The government knows it’s got to do certain things by certain dates, and if they don’t do it, they risk getting judicially reviewed.”

"In 2018, researchers found that the UK is leading the world in the decarbonisation of its energy grid. "

Up-to-date data helped the CCC recognise early on that the existing electricity market couldn’t deliver the emissions reductions needed to meet the country’s original 2008 commitment of an 80 per cent reduction by 2050.

Despite the political support, investors required further certainty to stake big money on renewables. Climate policies could still come and go, which made investors nervous about decades-long commitments. 

So the government introduced Contracts for Difference (CfD). Awarded by auction, a CfD is a 15-year agreement between the government and a renewable-energy provider. The government guarantees it will cover the difference between a fixed, agreed price for renewable electricity and its market price, thus making it harder for providers to lose money.

Policy in practice 

EV charger Credit: Fusion8

It was around 2014 that Sam Fankhauser, who sat on the CCC for its first eight years and now teaches climate policy at Oxford University, recalls witnessing the actualisation of what had, until then, existed only as computer models. He began to see offshore wind costs come down and electric vehicles on the roads. “All of a sudden you could see real action, real numbers,” he says.

This activity may seem small when you consider that the UK is responsible for only 1.1 per cent of current global greenhouse gas emissions, but the impact of its policies has been outsized. In 2008, the Climate Change Act was the first of its kind in the world. Fourteen years later, two-thirds of OECD countries have a similar climate law in place or are considering one. 

The CCC has also proven to be a key innovation. While environmental-advisory bodies associated with governments have long existed, the CCC was one of the first to be dedicated solely to climate.

Today, nearly 70 per cent of European countries have some form of national climate-advisory body, with more in the works. Even the CfD innovation is catching on, as Germany is now using auctions to accelerate investment in decarbonisation. 

The evidence is compelling. In 2018, researchers at the Imperial College London and E4Tech found that the UK is leading the world in the decarbonisation of its energy grid. 

In addition, an independent 2018 review of the Climate Change Act by the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Grantham Institute credited it with successfully decoupling greenhouse gas emissions from GDP.

Between 1985 and 2016, the UK’s GDP per head grew by 70.7 per cent, while CO2 emissions fell by 34.2 per cent—proof that a modern economy can thrive while reducing its reliance on fossil fuels.

A government model to learn from 

“The UK is never going to solve climate change on its own, but if it can show that, hey, here’s a governance model that can be learned from, I think that may make more than a one percent difference in tackling global climate change,” says David Joffe, head of carbon budgets at the CCC.

David's challenge now is that the good news, especially relating to the UK’s story of falling emissions, seems too good to be true. “The story struggles because people find it difficult to believe that it could have worked out so well,” he says. 

Since the Climate Change Act came into effect 15 years ago, the UK has yet to miss a carbon budget. Cross-party support has lasted, too, says Jared J. Finnegan, a lecturer in public policy at University College London. He co-authored the independent 2018 review of the Climate Change Act, which studied the legislation’s impact 10 years after it was passed. 

Finnegan and his colleagues interviewed 33 players across politics, government, the private sector and NGOs. No matter their affiliation or ideology, the respondents all admitted to using the CCC’s numbers, thanks to the strong consensus that the institution’s evidence was credible and objective. 

“When we looked at political debates in Parliament, we found that those have become more fact-based and better informed over the past 10 or 15 years as a result of, we think, the CCC feeding in very good, high-quality information,” says Finnegan. 

This is not to say the UK is guaranteed success in reaching its 2050 target. It faces many challenges, especially as the country enters the period of its fourth, and most stringent, carbon budget. “It doesn’t mean we are out of the woods,” says Fankhauser. “We still have to see it through.”

A green industrial revolution 

A green planet earth above a keyboard Credit: pcess609

There is a symmetry, too, to the fact that Boris Johnson, in 2020, framed the climate plan as a road map for a “green industrial revolution.” The Industrial Revolution modernised the world. It made it richer but also had the brutal side effect of weaponising the weather against us as greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere and warmed the planet. 

In the early 2000s, when the UK was just beginning discussions around strengthening its climate governance, the economic argument for why it shouldn’t legislate climate action was never as powerful as the moral one for why it should. Which is to say, the UK took ownership of global warming. It accepted its part in starting it and its duty to fix it.

This excerpt was taken from Anne Shibata Casselman's article "How the UK is winning the race against climate change" in The Walrus

Banner credit: Sakorn Sukkasemsakorn


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