Are targets an effective way of promoting renewable energy in the UK?
2021-12-14

This post is part of the AUCEL COP26 series

 

Renewable energy targets have been imposed in many forms worldwide, whether its through strict legislation or softer policy mechanisms. Regardless of the form they take in an individual State, the role of targets is to force government action by allowing for progress reviews at regular intervals which aid in increasing the share of renewables and mitigating climate change worldwide. However, we still see differences in the way States regulate renewables, compared to how they regulate decarbonisation. These differences can have a significant impact on the transparency and momentum of renewable energy proliferation, and this post considers the use of targets in the UK.

The UK has a reputation as a ‘global leader in decarbonisation’ with ambitious targets in both promoting renewable energy capacity and decarbonising the economy as a whole. But is the focus on decarbonisation restricting the advancement of renewables? At face value, it appears not. The net zero emissions target imposed by the UK Climate Change Act 2008 is compatible with the transition to low-carbon energy sources, given that the energy sector is one of the largest contributors to emissions. However, the lack of binding legislation imposing stricter renewable targets in the UK is allowing for the Government to avoid transitioning away from fossil fuels at the rapid pace required for meeting the Paris Agreement objectives.

So, what are the UK’s renewable energy targets? The overall ambition is to power domestic electricity and heating with 100% renewable energy by 2035. Given that renewable capacity has more than doubled between 2014 and 2020, this does not seem unrealistic. With 43% of energy coming from renewables in 2020 – the predominant sources being solar, wind, hydro and biomass – the UK is on course to significantly reduce its reliance on natural gas and other fossil fuels in the long-term. These targets are all enclosed in policy documents and white papers, rather than in hard law instruments, making them somewhat harder to enforce.

Offshore wind alone, is one of the UK’s greatest successes in renewable energy promotion, accounting for 19% of domestic generation in 2019 – with a proposed increase of 25% in offshore wind by 2030, aiming for 40GW of overall capacity. This will require a combination of both fixed and floating infrastructure and a significant acceleration in the planning stages of these projects, as many of the larger offshore projects can take up to a decade from planning to grid connection. However, subsidies such as Contracts for Difference (CfD) have made the development of offshore renewables far more attainable in recent years, which in turn makes these ambitious targets look far more realistic.

Similarly with solar energy, the targets are ambitious. However, even with an aim to more than double solar capacity in the UK by 2030, it would still fall 11GW behind the renewable capacity recommendation set by the independent Climate Change Committee (CCC). This Committee also plays an important role in providing progress reports on emissions and renewable energy status to the government, allowing for transparency as to the steps being taken to reduce the domestic and international climate impacts of the UK.

Availability of technologies also plays a huge role in the success of any state’s renewable energy targets and capabilities. The UK has access to some of the most advanced renewable technologies in the world. With the capacity of wind turbines evolving from 0.5MW in the 1990s to 10MW+ in 2020, it is clear that science and technology are effectively responding to the climate crisis. Now, the Government needs to effectively implement these technologies to ensure a swift and just transition.

But what are the consequences if the UK Government fails to comply with its own targets? Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the proposed remedies are parliamentary scrutiny or judicial review. However, as this legislation primarily covers decarbonisation, and not renewables explicitly, it raises questions as to the remedies available for breach of the renewable targets.

Overall, we can see that the UK has set some rather ambitious targets for its advancement of renewable energies, but that it lacks hard law mechanisms to impose this and also lacks effective remedies for non-compliance. However, by setting these targets so high, even if they are not met or exceeded by the deadline, if the UK can get close to 40GW of offshore wind, or to almost 100% renewables by 2035, it will still be a world leader in renewables. An ability to even come close to these goals will result in a huge success for the UK as it would be able to ensure its own energy security and drastically reduce emissions from the energy sector, thus proving that targets – even if they seem overly-ambitious – are an incredible means of advancing and promoting renewable energy.

Published by School of Law, University of Aberdeen

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