Profiling the United Kingdom’s NDCs

by Jack Johnson 

This article analyses the United Kingdom’s (UK) updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). The UK’s NDC is particularly important for two reasons:

  1. The UK is co-president and host of the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) which means it has an important role to play in setting the tone and expectations for the conference. Hence, the UK’s NDC is some indication of the ambition to be expected at COP26.
  1. The UK has disproportionately contributed to the climate crisis. The UK is the 8th largest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases between 1850-2021 [1]. From this perspective, the UK has a responsibility to set ambitious NDC targets.

In December 2020, the UK was one of just 45 parties to meet the Paris Agreement’s deadline for submitting updated NDCs to the UNFCCC (find the UK’s NDC here) [2].  Meeting this deadline in and of itself was an example of climate leadership. The contents of the UK’s updated NDC are  also a sign of its intentions to be a climate leader.

What is the UK’s NDC target?

The UK’s NDC commits to a 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 relative to its 1990 levels. This is a markedly stronger pledge relative to its previous 2030 commitment of 57% emission cut [3]. The increased ambition is important because the updated pledge puts the UK on track to achieve its long-term goal of net-zero by 2050 [3]. It’s also a very ambitious NDC target, outdoing the EU’s 55% 2030 target, the US’s 52% 2030 target (which is only relative to its 2005 emissions), and China’s emission trajectory which is set to peak in 2030 [4, 5, 6].

The UK’s updated emission target can however be criticized based on its omission of imported emissions [7]. Many of the goods consumed in the UK are imported. The production and transport of these goods requires energy which produces greenhouse gas emissions. It’s estimated that the emissions associated with all UK imports represents 43% of the country’s total emissions [7].  By leaving these emissions unaccounted for, the NDC doesn’t include a large portion of the UK’s actual climate impact.

The UK’s updated NDC can also be criticized based on its climate finance commitments. The NDC does not commit to the UK’s fair share of climate aid agreed upon in the Paris Agreement [8]. Additionally, the climate finance commitments that are put forth in the updated NDC are reappropriated from the UK’s existing aid budget, breaking the UN agreement that aid would be ‘new and additional’ [8].

Even still, the UK’s updated NDC does represent significant progress in the country’s climate action plans. It is also the most ambitious NDC globally, which demonstrates some very important leadership as we look forward to COP26 [9].

Is the UK achieving its NDC targets?

While the UK’s updated NDC is the world’s most ambitious, it doesn’t paint a full picture of the UK’s climate strategy. The delivery of the climate promises must also be assessed.

Since 1990, the UK has reduced its emissions by 45% which is commendable progress. These cuts however are almost exclusively due to the switch from coal to gas in the 1990s/2000s [10]. Since, not much has changed with emissions in the transport and housing sectors remaining ‘stubbornly high’ [10]. The UK Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) 2021 progress report found that the government’s current policies will only deliver one fifth of the emissions reductions promised [11]. This is due in large part to government policies which plan to invest £27 billion in new roads, expand every airport in the country, and build a new coal mine [10, 12, 13]. Consequently, the UK is off-track to achieve its 57% emissions reduction target, let alone the updated 68% target.

Despite the ambition of the UK’s NDC, the government must take stronger and more urgent action if it wishes to deliver on its promises and become a true climate leader.

How could the UK improve its NDC delivery?

There are multiple ways for the UK to deepen its climate action and meet its NDC target. Four of the most achievable and effective possibilities are laid out below:

  1. Transport

Transport is the UK’s most carbon intensive sector [14]. In order to decarbonize the transport sector, the CCC advises: the introduction of tax schemes to disincentive air travel; increased subsidies and development of public transport networks; increased support for electric vehicle uptake [15].

  1. Homes

Homes account for 15% of UK territorial emissions [14]. The CCC recommends that the UK government develop a long-term policy framework to subsidize and retrofit the UK housing stock with insulation and energy efficient heat pumps [16]. By 2030, this strategy needs to achieve a 15% reduction in energy used to heat homes [16].

  1. Land Use

Land use accounts for 12% of UK territorial emissions [17]. This is mostly due to the use of fertilizers and farming carbon-intensive animals like cows and pigs [17]. Through policies which reduce carbon-intensive farming practices, increase tree planting, and restore peatland which capture carbon, the CCC estimates that emissions in the land use sector can be reduced 64% by 2050 [18].

  1. Finance

To support the above changes and many other shifts required in the energy, industry and business sectors, the CCC also proposes a financial sector redesign. This reform includes increasing net-zero investments from £10 billion in 2020 to £50 billion in 2030, making net-zero targets mandatory for financial institutions, and including climate risks in financial regulation [19].

These are some of the major action points which the UK must implement if it wishes to achieve its NDC target. Despite lackluster delivery, the UK’s ambitious commitments have driven NDCs forwards, setting a new benchmark for climate commitments. This suggests that the UK intends to be an ambitious leader at COP26 which is some indication of what the conference might achieve.


[1] Evans, S. (2021) ‘Analysis: which countries are historically responsible for climate change?’ Carbon Brief, Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[2] Gabbatiss, J. (2021) ‘Analysis: Which countries met the UN’s 2020 deadline to raise climate ambition?’ Carbon Brief, Available at: 1) <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[3] Carbon Action Tracker (2020) ‘UK submits ambitious NDC to UNFCCC’ Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[4]  European Union Commission (2021) ‘2030 Climate Target Plan’ Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[5] International Institute for Sustainable Development, (2021) ‘USSets Target to Reduce Emissions by 50-52% Below 2005 Levels in 2030’ Available at:  <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[6] Climate Action Tracker (2021) ‘China’ Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[7] Pettinotti, L, and J, Keane. (2020) ‘Four reflections on the Uk’s Nationally determined Contribution’ Overseas Development Institute, Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[8] Climate Action Tracker (2021) ‘United Kingdom’ Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[9] Coren, M. and T. McDonnell, (2021) ‘The nations with the most ambitious climate commitments, ranked’ Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[10] Harvey, F. (2020) ‘Climate change: what is the UK’s NDC and why is it important?’ The Guardian, Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[11] Climate Change Committee, (2021) ‘2021 Progress Report to Parliament’ Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[12] Barrett, T. (2020) ‘Revealed: every UK airport has plans to expand’ Air Quality News, Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[13] Bradshaw, H. (2021) ‘Is a new oil field climate change hypocrisy?’ BBC, Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[14] Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, (2020) ‘How is the UK tackling climate change?’ Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[15] Climate Change Committee, (2021) ‘Joint Recommendations: 2021 Report to Parliament’ Available at: file:///Users/jackjohnson/Downloads/CCC-Joint-Recommendations-2021-Report-to-Parliament.pdf <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[16] Climate Change Committee, (2019) ‘UK housing: Fit for the Future?’ Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
[17] Farand, C. (2020) ‘UK must cut land use emissions my two thirds to meet 2050 goal, advisors warm’ Climate Home News, Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>. 
[18] Climate Change Committee (2020) ‘Land use: Policies for a Net Zero UK’ Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>. 
[19] Climate Change Committee, (2020) ‘The Road to Net-Zero Finance’ Available at: <accessed: 6 October 2021>.
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