The UK is responsible for less than 1% of annual global emissions of greenhouse gases. That means more than 99% of the annual emissions that are driving the growing impacts of climate change in the UK, such as sea level rise and increases in the intensity and frequency of heavy rainfall and heatwaves, originate from beyond the country’s borders. The UK therefore has a critical interest in other countries cutting their emissions to net zero as soon as possible and can advance this interest by advocating for strong action and leading by example.

How has the UK been able to cut emissions while achieving economic growth?

The UK has a relatively good track record of cutting its annual emissions, which have fallen by 52.7% since 1990. During this period, the size of the UK’s economy, as measured through gross domestic product, has increased by 79.6%. This provides an important demonstration that cutting emissions can accompany economic growth. Indeed, there are strong arguments that investing in the new, clean and efficient technologies of the 21st century can drive growth forward.

Most of the UK’s cut in emissions has been achieved by reducing the use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, for electricity generation. In 2023, just 36.3% of the country’s electricity was generated by fossil fuels, while the proportion of power from renewables reached a record 47.3%. Overall coal consumption for all uses has fallen by 97.3% since 2012.

The growth of renewables has been rapid. Wind provided a record 28.7% of UK electricity in 2023, despite an unfavourable policy and planning environment for the construction of new onshore turbines. In contrast, the growth of offshore wind has been impressive, increasing its contribution to electricity generation from just 2.1% in 2012 to 17.3% in 2023. This growth was accompanied by a fall in the auction price from £57.50 per megawatt-hour in 2017 to £37.35 per megawatt-hour in 2022, in 2012 prices.

What is the status of the UK’s international reputation on climate?

The UK has demonstrated the importance of introducing framework legislation, through the Climate Change Act, the setting of carbon budgets, and creation of an expert and independent advisory body, the Climate Change Committee. This gives confidence in the direction of travel that can encourage investment, and it shows that investment in dirty technologies will be ever more risky.

This track record means that the UK has had a reputation as a climate leader. This is particularly important given that the Industrial Revolution that precipitated the upsurge in fossil fuel combustion and carbon emissions started in Britain: other nations, particularly developing countries, expect the UK to demonstrate that an alternative path to economic development and growth, which is not dependent on fossil fuels, is feasible.

The UK’s climate leadership was also visible through the country’s role, until 2019, on behalf of the European Union in the negotiations at the annual sessions of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Its leadership in Paris in 2015 at the 21st session (COP21) was of particular importance. The UK also hosted a successful 26th session (COP26) in Glasgow in 2021, which led to, among other things, a major expansion in the participation of the private sector in international action.

This leadership means that the UK can credibly engage with other countries to explore ways of increasing climate action. Other countries are unlikely to respond positively to the UK threatening to drag its feet on climate action until others do more. And UK investments in technologies such as offshore wind help to demonstrate opportunities and to reduce the costs worldwide.

This leadership has recently been undermined by several recent mis-steps, including an unsuccessful auction for offshore wind and a speech by the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, in September 2023 during which he announced the weakening of key targets for domestic climate policy. It is now common to hear decision-makers overseas ask the question, ‘Why has the UK gone flaky on climate policy?’, followed up with ‘Perhaps we should slow down too.’

What co-benefits to climate action will be enjoyed by the UK?

Many of the actions to reduce emissions have broad benefits for the economy, environment and health. Apart from the impacts of climate change, the use of fossil fuels is also a major contributor to air pollution, which the Government estimates is roughly responsible for the equivalent of between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths every year in the UK. This compares with about 1,800 deaths from road collisions. The electrification of the economy through technologies such as heat pumps and electric vehicles not only reduces these health impacts, but is also making the UK less reliant on imports of fossil fuels and their associated price volatility and insecure supplies. The UK’s dependence on natural gas was a central element in the country’s energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The steep rise in the wholesale price led to very high consumer prices for electricity and heating, which required the Government to introduce the Energy Price Guarantee and other subsidies that cost UK taxpayers about £78 billion, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

There is abundant evidence that investments in the net zero economy will not only avoid losses from climate change impacts, but will also boost growth and productivity in the UK, while creating many new jobs to replace those lost in high-carbon businesses.

This Explainer was written by Nicholas Stern, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

UK myth-busting series: This Explainer was produced as part of a UK-focused ‘myth-busting’ project between the LSE and Imperial College London Grantham Institutes. The series of 10 Explainers will be published as a single volume later in spring 2024. The project is designed to deepen understanding of climate change action among current and prospective decision-makers, the policy community and the public in the UK in the run-up to the 2024 General Election. See ‘Related pages’ to the right for further Explainers in this series.

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