Illustration of a train heading on a track that's broken towards a destination called "climate target"

Off track: is the UK breaking its 2030 climate promise?

Friends of the Earth’s new data analysis shows that the UK government is off-track to reach its 2030 emissions target. Read the report and find out how the UK's progress has fared under Rishi Sunak's premiership.
  Published:  05 Dec 2023    |      10 minute read

At the COP27 climate talks in November 2022, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addressed world leaders and promised he would "fulfil [the UK’s] commitment to reduce emissions by at least 68% by 2030" (compared to 1990). The target, which was first announced in 2021, reflects the UK’s contribution towards efforts to limit global heating by 1.5°C, as established in the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement, or Paris Climate Deal, is a legally binding agreement between 196 countries to reduce carbon emissions and limit global warming to 1.5°C.

It also compels nations to address the loss and damage caused by climate impacts, and commits finance to help developing countries tackle and adapt to climate change.

The Agreement was reached at the UN climate talks in Paris (COP21) in 2015, and came into force the following year.

Under the Paris Agreement, every country in the world must set targets to reduce emissions. Global co-operation is essential to tackling the climate crisis, but the UK is failing to do its bit.

We’ve analysed ratings of the government’s climate plans by its advisers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), and used them to project emissions in 2030. The result? Our central estimate is that under present policies, UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 would only be 59% lower than 1990 – leaving a gap of 9 percentage points with the target of 68%. 

To get a clearer picture of this government’s performance, we also assessed the emissions reductions needed from now to 2030 (excluding the emissions reductions that have already been achieved since 1990). The government’s current policies would only achieve just over half (54%) of the emissions cuts needed between now and 2030 to hit the target.   

Furthermore, the emissions gap – the difference between the target and projected emissions in 2030 – has grown by more than half (55%) under Sunak’s leadership. In June 2022, the UK had over 8 years to meet the 2030 target. Just over a year later, it should have been much closer to having a full set of credible plans, but instead, it went backwards. This is because Sunak has delayed climate action and has scored several deliberate own goals by reversing climate policies introduced during Boris Johnson’s premiership.  

Rishi Sunak stands at a lectern giving a speech at COP27 climate talks in Egypy
Rishi Sunak at COP27 in Egypt, 2022
Credit: Stefan Rousseau via Pool/Getty Images

Our analysis also shows that emissions reduction plans in 4 key sectors have all weakened since Sunak moved into 10 Downing Street.

For example, we calculated that in June 2022, 87% of plans to reduce emissions in the surface transport sector (which includes vehicles on roads and rail but excludes shipping and aviation) were deemed "credible" or posing only "some risks" by the government’s own advisers. By October 2023, that figure fell to just 62%.

We identified drops in 3 other sectors analysed by the CCC – buildings, industry and electricity supply – which together with surface transport account for 65% of total UK emissions. 

In September 2023, while announcing plans to dismantle several climate policies, Sunak said: "I am unequivocal that we’ll meet our international agreements", which includes the 2030 target. But the policy failures across multiple sectors of the economy demonstrate the need for a new comprehensive climate plan that ensures the UK meets and exceeds the 2030 international commitment and our domestic climate targets. The plan should be designed to reduce inequalities by ensuring that the costs and benefits of the policies are distributed fairly across society. 

The UK government can still close the gap and achieve the 2030 target with policies that also improve people’s standard of living, create new jobs, and cut energy bills. These initiatives include investing in a £6 billion home insulation programme, removing the planning restrictions on renewable energy, speeding up the rollout of heat pumps, upgrading the electricity grid and funding a renaissance in public transport and active travel.

What are the UK's climate targets?

The UK government has made both domestic and international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Its domestic target is to reach net zero emissions by 2050, which is based on UK law – specifically the Climate Change Act. To achieve net zero, the government must stick to "carbon budgets", which restrict the total amount of greenhouse gases the UK can emit over 5-year periods.

The UK government’s international target to reduce emissions by 68% by 2030 is much less well known than "net zero by 2050", but the 2030 target is crucial because the earlier emissions are cut, the less likely it is we'll cross climate tipping points. The 2030 target is part of the UK's commitments under the Paris Agreement, a global treaty. Under the framework of the Paris Agreement, countries publish Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that set out targets for limiting greenhouse gas emissions and other measures to help limit global heating to 1.5°C.

The 2030 target was set by the government in the run-up to the COP26 climate summit in 2021. It was based on the recommendation of the CCC, which said the 2030 target was "eminently achievable" and in line with the emissions trajectory required for meeting net zero. The CCC also pointed out that the policies needed to hit the 2030 target "would bring significant benefits for the UK’s economic recovery."

The 2030 target should be regarded as the floor, not the ceiling, of the UK’s climate ambition. As a relatively wealthy country with a large historical responsibility for global emissions, the UK’s fair share of climate action includes reducing emissions faster than the 2030 target, as well as delivering crucial climate finance and technology to help poorer countries deal with the impacts of climate change and transition to renewable energy. 

Will the UK meet its 2030 target?

Our new analysis shows that the UK government’s plans would fail to reach the 2030 target. We’ve calculated projected emissions in 2030 based on ratings of the government’s plans by the CCC. We created 3 scenarios: our central estimate, along with a best-case scenario and a worst-case scenario for potential emissions (for more information on how we created the scenarios and calculated projected emissions, see our methodology section).   

To hit the 2030 target, the CCC says that UK government actions need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 170 MtCO2e (megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) between October 2023 and the end of 2030. However, our central estimate is that the government’s current plans will only cut emissions by 92 MtCO2e by 2030, which is only 54% of what’s needed to achieve the target. 

We also calculated the difference between projected emissions in 2030 and actual emissions in 1990. This is because the UK pledged to reduce emissions by 68% by 2030 compared to 1990 (the UK and several other rich countries set 1990 as the base year for their climate emissions targets). Our results reveal a significant gap between the 2030 target and projected emissions in all 3 scenarios.  

 

If the UK fails to hit the 2030 target, it will also likely be off-track to meet the sixth carbon budget, which sets an emissions limit for the period 2033-2037 to help reach net zero emissions by 2050. The sixth carbon budget is the first and only carbon budget that is aligned with the net zero target as the first 5 carbon budgets were based on the previous domestic commitment to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.

Worryingly, the CCC found in June that only 20% of the emissions reductions required to achieve the sixth carbon budget had credible plans in place, which was even less than for the 2030 target.

What's changed under Sunak?

Sunak has repeatedly re-affirmed his commitment to the 2030 target and net zero. However, his actions expose a blatant disregard for honouring the UK’s climate targets.

We analysed how the projected 2030 emissions gap – the difference between the 2030 target and projected emissions in 2030 – has changed since Sunak became prime minister. To do this, we estimated projected emissions in 2030 based on the CCC’s assessments of the government’s policies in June 2022 (before Sunak became prime minister) and again for assessments made in October 2023 (a year into Sunak’s premiership).

Our calculations reveal a large increase in the emissions gap since he entered Number 10 in all 3 scenarios. In our central estimate, the emissions gap increased by more than half (55%).

 

The steep decline in the credibility of the government’s plans since June 2022 is partly due to "delays in action leading to increased delivery risks", according to the CCC. It also noted that the detailed information in the government’s climate strategy – the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan, published in March 2023 – enabled the CCC to see the flaws in the government’s plans more clearly. After the launch of its plan, the government made progress in some areas, but Sunak’s decision in September 2023 to water down or scrap several climate policies reduced the overall share of credible climate plans.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stands at a lectern with the slogan "Long-term decisions for a brighter future" while giving a press conference on delaying green policiesvers a press conference
Rishi Sunak announces the postponement of several climate policies, September 2023
Credit: Justin Tallis via WPA Pool/Getty Images

Policy case studies 

We analysed 4 of the UK’s key sectors – surface transport, buildings, industry and electricity supply, which together account for 65% of UK emissions – to better understand where the government’s plans have been weakened. We calculated that since June 2022, before Sunak became prime minister, the share of plans that the CCC regards as "credible" or posing only "some risks" has fallen in all 4 sectors.

 

Below, we identify some of the policy failures that underpin the downward trend in those sectors.

Surface transport

The CCC has criticised the lack of targets for, and progress in, reducing car travel demand, saying that measures to reduce car demand – whether through reducing the need to travel, using public transport or carpooling – present an important opportunity to go beyond the government’s quantified pathways which would reduce the risk of relying solely on the rapid uptake of zero-emission vehicles. The CCC noted the positive impact of schemes such as 15-minute neighbourhoods and low traffic neighbourhoods, but Sunak has announced a review of them.

Sunak’s announcement of a delay from 2030 to 2035 of a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars – in line with the date in the EU – was in some ways symbolic because the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate (which requires 80% of new cars sold in 2030 to be zero emissions) remains. But it's likely to impact on investment and jobs as the UK will no longer be ahead of the pack.

Buildings

In September 2023, Sunak announced that he was scrapping planned regulations to set minimum energy efficiency standards for private rented properties. Had they gone ahead, these standards would have meant that all such properties would have to meet an energy performance certificate "C" rating by 2028. This move, taken to reduce costs for landlords, will mean critical delays in improving the energy efficiency of some of the UK’s poorest quality homes, resulting in higher emissions and higher bills for renters. One estimate put the additional costs to renters from delaying the measures to 2030 at £1.4 billion. 

Industry

The announcement of a deal to decarbonise Tata Steel’s plant at Port Talbot by moving from coal-fired blast furnaces to greener electric arc furnaces is an important step in the right direction. However, there’s been little progress (in terms of both policy and funding) for industrial electrification or on developing green hydrogen for use in steel production, and high electricity prices remain a disincentive to this important change. 

Electricity supply

Offshore wind will provide much of the growth in renewable electricity generation up to 2030, with the government aiming to more than triple the current 14 GW of installed offshore capacity to 50 GW by 2030. However, the failure of the most recent offshore wind auction to attract any bids from the industry casts doubt over the government’s commitment to the target. This failure is widely accepted to be the result of the government not changing the price to be paid to developers to reflect factors such as higher construction costs and higher interest rates, despite having been warned about this by the CCC in its June 2023 progress report. 

The UK also needs much more onshore wind and solar power. The government recently announced it would lift the de facto ban on new onshore wind projects but there are still more planning restrictions on them than other types of infrastructure. A further obstacle is grid connections, with lengthy delays in connecting new renewable power to the grid. 

What next?

The failure of the government’s existing policies across multiple sectors demonstrates the need for a new comprehensive and fair climate plan that enables the UK to meet and exceed its 2030 pledge and domestic climate targets.  

Illustration of a train heading towards destination "climate target" with tips en route explaining how to get there

It's still possible to hit our 2030 target. But it requires the government to introduce a package of new policies, including:

  • ending the planning restrictions on renewable energy
  • boosting the take-up of electric heat pumps
  • investing in renovating the electric grid
  • funding a £6 billion home insulation programme
  • making public transport more affordable and reliable.

Crucially, these policies will not only support the UK to achieve our climate commitments, but also reduce the cost of living, create new jobs and improve people’s quality of living. 

Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth and the Good Law Project are taking the government to court to challenge its Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (CBDP). The CBDP sets out the policies the government says will enable the carbon budgets and the 2030 target to be met. But there was key information missing about the delivery risks associated with these policies. The challenges will be heard together from 20 to 22 February 2024.  

Methodology

To estimate emissions in 2030, we analysed the ratings of the government’s current plans by the CCC, which sorts them into the following categories:

  • Credible plans with appropriate funding, timelines and enablers to overcome barriers. 
  • Plans with some risk where some adjustment to plans may be needed to mitigate risks. 
  • Plans with significant risk where extensive work is needed to enact policies and overcome risk. 
  • Insufficient plans that are either missing, clearly inadequate, or lack funding, and new proposals are needed. 

We used these ratings to create new estimates for projected emissions in 2030. We took the CCC’s baseline of "emissions if no action" and subtracted emissions reductions associated with the government’s plans.  To do this, we created 3 different scenarios:

  1. The best-case scenario assumes that all "credible plans" plus those with "some risk" or "significant risk" will achieve 100% of the emissions reductions required. This is extremely unlikely in practice as some risky plans won't achieve the full intended emissions cuts. Insufficient plans are excluded. 
  2. The central estimate includes all emissions reductions backed by "credible plans" and those with "some risk" but excludes plans with "significant risks". This scenario is likely to give a more accurate estimate, as any plans with "significant risks" that succeed could be balanced out by any plans with "some risks" that fail.  
  3. The worst-case scenario only includes emissions reductions backed by "credible plans". This scenario is highly unlikely as there will probably be at least some emissions reductions from plans with some/ significant risk. 

To calculate the emissions gap under the 3 scenarios we excluded international aviation and shipping (IAS) emissions, as these aren't included in the UK’s 2030 target. However, for our figures on how the emissions gap changed from 2022 to 2023, we included IAS emissions because this enabled us to make a more direct comparison between the 2 years (as the CCC didn't specify the credibility of the plans associated with IAS). 

We note that there are some differences in the data used to project emissions in June 2022, compared to October 2023. There are different baselines and scenarios in the 2 periods, and the 2022 assessment is based on the government’s Net Zero Strategy, whereas the 2023 assessment is partly based on the government’s updated climate strategy, the CBDP. The very large difference in the emissions gap suggests it's at least partly due to a deterioration of the government’s climate plans, not just any methodological differences.  

The CCC has verified our estimates for projected national greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 for each of the 3 scenarios, as well as our data on the quality of the government’s plan in 4 energy sectors. This doesn't imply the CCC supports Friends of the Earth's legal challenge against the government’s climate plan.   

Data sources

The base year UK annual emissions in 1990 was taken from the Carbon Budget Deliver Plan Technical Annex (page 9).   

International aviation and shipping (IAS) in 2030 was based on the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (page 13). We used the average annual emissions in CB5 (2028-2032). 

The NDC 2030 emissions target was taken from the CCC’s October 2023 update.

The CCC’s October 2023 “baseline of emissions if no action” was taken from the CCC’s October 2023 update. 

The CCC’s estimates in 2023 for emissions cuts under different categories of plans (credible etc) was taken from the CCC’s October 2023 update.

The CCC’s baseline in 2022 was taken from the CCC’s June 2022 progress report (figure 2.12). 

The CCC’s estimates in 2022 of emissions cuts by 2030 under categories of plans (credible etc) was taken from the CCC’s June 2022 progress report (figure 2.12). 

Fossil fuel companies are planning to launch 29 new projects in the UK.

Fossil fuel companies are planning to launch 29 new projects in the UK.

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