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UK Needs to Double Clean Energy Deployment to Meet Net Zero Target


Despite significant advancements in its renewable energy sector, the United Kingdom is lagging way behind where it needs to be in terms of clean energy development. The country needs a dramatic acceleration - more than double its recurrent rate - of clean energy deployment if it is to have any hope of meeting its own ambitious climate goals, which include a legally binding pledge to reach net zero by 2050. While the urgency and steepness of this acceleration curve grows greater every year, however, a lukewarm policy environment could threaten the UK's ability to deliver on those goals. 

Progress on decarbonization over the last decade has been problematically slow in the United Kingdom, thanks in part to political hurdles including then-Prime Minister David Cameron's de facto ban on new onshore wind energy projects and current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's decision to stop the 'war on motorists' by pushing back measures to stop the sale of new gas and diesel vehicles, as well as delaying plans to prohibit the installation of gas and oil boilers in new builds, and improve energy efficiency of existing properties.

Due to the time lost on clean energy deployment and other decarbonization measures, a new analysis by AtkinsRealis calculates that an average of 15.5GW of clean energy per year needs to be deployed in the UK to stay on a pathway to meet its own targets. "For context, the UK has never added more than 6.5GW of new low-carbon capacity in a single year," Edie recently reported. Worryingly, that record was set way back in 2017. 

Ideally, deployment should have been accelerating every year to stay on track. In addition to that legally binding promise to reach net zero emissions by mid-century, other pledges include carbon budgets designed to support the 2050 net-zero target, plus a newer promise to eliminate all unabated fossil fuels from the national energy mix by 2035.

Now, the UK is left with less time to achieve more buildout, which does not bode well for a smooth transition. "A rapid build-out of wind and solar within a compact timeframe would lead to heightened challenges including supply chain management, planning and permitting and preparing skilled staff," Edie reports. This kind of rapid build-out is also faced with major issues concerning contentious land-use agreements, which often take time to iron out. "And the only alternative would be prolonged reliance on unabated gas, jeapordising climate progress." 

But there's good news. England could increase its renewable energy production 13-fold while using less than 3% of its total land mass. And that's all just by deploying solar and onshore wind energy, the two cheapest forms of renewable energy production. That's according to new research from Exeter University, commissioned by Friends of the Earth (FoE). According to their findings, England could add 130 terawatt hours of photovoltaic solar energy and 96 terawatt hours of onshore wind energy to the 17 terawatt hours of total renewable electricity it currently produces from all onland clean energies combined. 

The calculations ruled out land that cannot be converted or is unsuitable for clean energy projects, including national parks, "areas of outstanding natural beauty", higher grade agricultural land and heritage sites. These figures also exclude rooftop solar panels, which don't occupy any additional undeveloped land when deployed. The remaining suggested sites for these large-scale solar and wind farms are represented on this interactive map

Meeting the UK's climate pledges is therefore extremely feasible - but that doesn't mean it will be easy. "Unleashing the UK's immense potential to generate cheap, clean homegrown renewables is essential to bring down our energy bills for good and meeting the UK's vital international target to reduce carbon emissions by two-thirds by 2030," ??said Tony Bosworth, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "But the current government's record on boosting our energy security through renewables is woefully inadequate and has left the UK lagging far behind in the global race to a zero-carbon economy. Meanwhile, [the Labour Party] is looking increasingly shaky on climate after rolling back its planned investment in green growth."

By Haley  Zaremba for

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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the… More