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The SolarUK guide to carbon emissions targets

November 25, 2009

To interested observers, the various statistics that pop up in our media when attention turns to greenhouse gas emissions targets can be headache-inducing. Who is meant to be doing what, and by when? So here is SolarUK’s (relatively) simple guide to the most important international pledges.

This guide concentrates on the way things are at the moment: it sets the scene for the key UN negotiations taking place in Copenhagen next month, at which there should be a brand new set of targets. As for whether all the interested parties will be satisfied, it’s fair to say that despite coming at a festive time of year this summit is unlikely to generate much peace and goodwill.


Target: UK CO2 emissions are to be 12.5% below 1990 levels by 2010.
Chances of achieving: This target will be achieved very easily – they are expected to be about 23% below 1990 levels by next year, according to Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) figures.

Target: UK’s CO2 emissions, as its contribution to a legally binding EU target, are to be cut to 34% of 1990 levels by 2020, and by 80% by 2050.
Chances of achieving: Unlikely.  About a 21% reduction has been achieved so far.

Target: EU’s legally binding undertaking to cut CO2 emissions by 20% of 1990 levels by 2020.
Chances of achieving: Presumably the EU sees this as achievable, judging by its offer to go further and cut its emissions by 30% by 2020 and up to 95% by 2050 if other world powers sign up to a binding agreement at Copenhagen. But leading analysts doubt the existing targets will be met.

Target: EU countries to produce at least 20% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020(the UK’s share will be 15%).
Chances of achieving: The figure at the moment is about 8.5%. Italy is one of several countries saying that they won’t be able to achieve this. The UK believes it is on course to achieve what would represent an eightfold increase from current levels, but the Government’s recent unveiling of plans for new nuclear power stations, and its support for clean coal, suggests it doesn’t see renewables alone as enough to provide our low-carbon energy needs.

Global developed nations pledges: at this year’s G8 summit, the developed nations agreed that global warming should be limited to 2° Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels, but there was no specific reduction target, merely an expressed wish to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by between 50 and 80 per cent by 2050.


To put the 2°C limit in context, scientists believe that if this isn’t kept to and there is a rise of 4°C over pre-industrial levels, there would be a threat to the water supply of half the world’s population, the destruction of half of animal and plant species, and the engulfing of low coasts with water. How likely is this to happen?  It’s no surprise that there’s plenty of debate on this. In the Met Office’s view, following a study carried out for DECC, a 4°C rise in temperature could be a reality by 2060 unless there is ‘strong action’ on emissions, and Professor Bob Watson, Defra’s Chief Scientist, thinks that stabilising temperatures between 3 and 4 degrees is the best we can hope for.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2009 1:19 pm

    Target: UK’s CO2 emissions, as its contribution to a legally binding EU target, are to be cut to 34% of 1990 levels by 2020, and by 80% by 2050.
    Chances of achieving: Unlikely. About a 21% reduction has been achieved so far.

    I appreciate that you are correctly reporting the accepted figures, however this reduction should be taken with a pinch of salt somewhat.

    The carbon emissions associated with my purchase and use of of anything manufactured outside the UK will not be counted. As the UK has de-industrialized, effectively moving its manufacturing to the Far East, our local CO2 emissions will certainly go down. The amount we are actually responsible for are surely far higher.

  2. solarukweblog permalink*
    December 8, 2009 3:24 pm

    Well yes, your point’s about the ‘off shoring’ to the Far East of the UK’s carbon emissions – and a sound one it is too.

    But matters become very complicated, as if they aren’t already, if we don’t confine ourselves (as the UN does) to registering emissions from the country of origin.

    It should, however, be more widely appreciated that going by the terms of reference you suggest, the UK’s emissions have actually risen by 20% since 1990. Pause for thought. It seems that 6% of China’s emissions come from manufacturing goods for Europe, so what we demand of China and China does for us does ultimately need to be factored in when it comes to global agreements.

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