Some physics for the PM (and journalists) on the UK’s weak and weakening climate record and prospects


This is a quick response to UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak’s, cynical backpedalling on the UK’s already weak climate policies.

The physics of the climate responds to the build up of emissions in the atmosphere and not Net Zero 2050 or any other random end date. By weakening the UK’s already too weak climate strategy, the Prime Minister and his Government are choosing to fail on the UK’s 1.5, 2°C and equity commitments enshrined in the Paris Agreement. Put simply, Rishi Sunak holds the interests of oil and gas executives and the prospect of a few votes ahead of secure job prospects for UK citizens and a stable climate for our children. This is dog-whistle politics not leadership.

To provide some global numbers and dates based on the IPCC’s latest carbon budgets (AR6):

For a flip of a coin chance of not exceeding 1.5°C of warming, total global emissions can’t exceed 350 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – from now. That is around eight years of current annual global carbon emissions (at around 42 billion tonnes). Even if we were to draw a straight line down from today’s global carbon emissions to a zero-carbon future, that zero date would be 2039 – but emissions are still rising! For a detailed explanation of these numbers, see: How Alive is 1.5? – A small budget shrinking fast.

Add in the Paris Agreement and equity – and what this means for the UK:

The UK and other wealthy ‘developed’ nations have committed repeatedly (from the 1992 UNFCCC through to the 2015 Paris Agreement and 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact) to reduce emissions faster than poorer ‘developing’ nations (under the equity principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, CBDR-RC – see Article 3 of 1992 UNFCCC). So, for the UK, a zero date for carbon dioxide (basically fossil fuel use) is much nearer 2030 for a 50% chance of 1.5°C and towards the end of the 2030s for a good chance of staying below 2°C. This is simply the outcome of our international commitments, the IPCC carbon budgets and some simple arithmetic. To understand the apportionment of a global carbon budget to nations, see: A factor of two: how the mitigation plans of ‘climate progressive’ nations fall far short of Paris-compliant pathways and Beyond a veil of comfortable ignorance.

No doubt government ministers will trot out the line that the UK has almost halved its emissions since 1990 and few if any of the UK’s complicit journalists will counter this errant nonsense. Include aviation and shipping and the emissions associated with our imports and exports (what are often referred to as ‘consumption-based’ emissions), and the UK has achieved a reduction of between 15 and 20%; that’s an average of a little over 0.5% each year. Virtually all of this reduction has come from a shift away from coal fired electricity* and some renewables. But electricity is just 18% of the UK’s ‘final energy consumption’ and emissions from most other sectors have remained static, gone up or have been ‘offshored’ to other countries.

And finally – don’t be taken in by ‘net zero 2050’:

Net Zero 2050 is anyway far removed from any reasoned 1.5–2°C framing of climate change. It is worth noting that the ‘balanced net zero’ pathway from the Government’s Climate Change Committee (which ostensibly provides the basis for government policy) still has around 31 million tonnes of CO2 being emitted from fossil fuel use in 2050. That’s higher CO2 emissions per UK person in 2050 (including population growth) than is emitted today by a typical Kenyan citizen. So, let’s not pretend that net zero 2050 is a Paris-compliant framing of the climate agenda – it is not.

*  The shift from coal was driven, in large part, by a combination of the UK discovering natural gas in the North sea, the fractious relationship between the 1980s government and the miners’ union and the EU’s 2001 Large Plant Combustion Directive – essentially  requiring a closure of some coal plants for air quality (sulphur) reasons. As such, a significant part of the UK’s post-1990 emission reductions have occurred for political and air quality reasons and not through a judicious climate strategy.