Why the UK needs to clean up its power sector by 2035

This post is by Ben Westerman, freelance policy adviser at Green Alliance.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently released its roadmap on reaching a net zero global energy system by 2050. Its message was clear: current pledges by governments around the world fall well short of what is needed to reduce emissions fast enough to reach net zero by 2050 and prevent global temperatures rising above one and a half degrees.

With the climate summit in Glasgow just a few short months away, there is an opportunity for the UK government to use its presidency to show genuine global leadership. To ensure the UK government grasps this opportunity, Green Alliance is launching a campaign calling on the government to commit to full decarbonisation of the power sector by 2035.

Emissions have fallen because of important policy interventions
According to the Climate Change Committee (CCC), “it is possible to phase out unabated gas and build a power system with 75-90% share of variable renewable generation by 2050”. This is based on the assumption that emissions from the electricity sector are set to fall rapidly from the mid-2020s. However, to achieve this, the CCC recommends that “the burning of unabated natural gas should be phased out entirely by 2035” while “the low-carbon share increases to 100% by 2035”. In summary,  the emerging consensus is that following the phase out of coal in the UK, clean power is the future and a key step on the road to net zero.   

The UK’s electricity grid has decarbonised at a faster rate than other countries in the past decade. Emissions have fallen twice as quickly in the UK compared with any other major economy. This has been largely accomplished through policy interventions, including carbon pricing, feed-in tariffs and increased regulation. In the past year, however, the grid has become dirtier, with carbon intensity five per cent higher in the first four months of 2021 than the first four months of 2020. It’s crucial that we reverse this trend and capitalise on the momentum of the past decade with the ambition to reach zero carbon power by 2035.

Urgently decarbonising power is one of the most important challenges of the next decade; it is vital to the decarbonisation of transport, buildings, heating and industry. However, this is only achievable through significant policy and regulatory support from government. Merely committing to a target won’t be enough: government must match ambition with reality. Caveats will be needed around security of supply, particularly in cold winters, but by setting itself a 2035 target, the government is demonstrating the ambition that is badly needed on the international stage. Backing this up with a detailed roadmap and unlocking the finance to develop the technologies required will demonstrate that the UK is serious about leading the fight against climate change.

The CCC has made it clear that reaching net zero emissions by 2050 requires a zero carbon power grid long before that date, with the aspiration that “UK electricity production is zero carbon by 2035” as one of the key steps in cutting overall carbon emissions by 78 per cent by 2035. It is imperative that the notion of carbon free electricity providing a foundation for economy wide decarbonisation becomes an explicit aim for the government.   

There’s a credibility gap between targets and current plans
President Joe Biden has already promised “carbon pollution-free electricity sector no later than 2035”. With the US leading the way, rapid power sector decarbonisation is quickly becoming one of the key pillars of net zero strategies by countries serious about leading the way in this fight. The UK’s presidencies of both COP26 and the G7 provide the perfect platform for the government to forge a consensus, with the Biden administration, the EU and other major actors, that the time to extend the benchmark from coal to all fossil fuels is now.

The announcement of the UK coal phase out in 2015 has ushered in a new generation of low cost renewable energy technologies, diversified electricity supply and brought investment to the UK’s network infrastructure. Clean power will bring with it prosperity and jobs, levelling up regions of the UK and helping to power new fleets of electric vehicles, home heat pumps and green hydrogen production. The think tank Onward has found that the UK’s transition to green energy sources could create 1.7 million jobs, with half of these coming in the north, the Midlands and Scotland. According to their research, the effect of decarbonisation could generate over £330 billion in additional economic value by 2030. The UK’s access to coastal areas suitable for offshore wind provides energy security and cuts energy bills. Investing in clean energy could transform the UK from an importer of fossil fuels, to an exporter of clean energy. Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing sources of employment in the UK, bringing with it economic benefits which align perfectly with the government’s ambition to ‘level up’ the UK.  

There is currently a credibility gap between mid-century net zero targets and nearer term power sector plans. A commitment to decarbonise the power sector by 2035 would close this gap, and place the UK’s ambitions far ahead those of the EU: the UK would be phasing out gas before Germany has even phased out coal.  

With benefits at home for jobs and the economy and abroad in diplomatic advantages, the government has the opportunity to make a commitment now which shows it is serious about leading the way on climate change. Given the UK’s diplomatic role this year, this is the perfect moment to demonstrate real climate leadership with a commitment to clean up the power sector by 2035.

Read our Net zero policy tracker: April update for the latest breakdown of the UK government’s progress on net zero.

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