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Thirty years of climate mitigation: lessons from the 1989 options appraisal for the UK

02 April, 2021

Thirty years of climate mitigation: lessons from the 1989 options appraisal for the UK

Nick Eyre

Research paper   Policy & Governance

Eoin Lees and Nick Eyre

Abstract

In April 1989, the UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, convened a full cabinet meeting on climate change addressed by leading scientists. The presentation on mitigation of carbon dioxide emissions was made by the Head of the Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU), Ken Currie, and identified the key potential options for mitigation by 2020. In this paper, we compare the mitigation potential identified for each proposed option with the 2019 outturn. The largest mitigation options identified were improved end use energy efficiency across the economy and the generation and use of low carbon electricity. Our analysis finds that these have been the key options adopted. Reductions in primary energy use, resulting from improvements in energy efficiency were concentrated in the period 2005–2012 which in 1989 were widely considered to be ambitious. Decarbonisation of electricity has been achieved by the displacement of coal, initially by gas and more recently by renewable electricity. Renewable electricity has exceeded 1989 expectations in the last 5 years and is now the biggest source of CO2 reductions from electricity generation. The contribution envisaged by nuclear electricity has not occurred, largely due its failure to compete in liberalised generation markets. In all cases, the policy environment has been important. We draw lessons for mitigation options to achieve the goal of net zero emissions in the next 30 years. The contribution of demand side and other modular options will remain crucial, as mass-produced technologies tend to improve more quickly than those requiring large construction projects. Environmental, social and political factors will be important, so analysis should not be a purely techno-economic assessment.

Publication details

Lees, E. & Eyre, N. 2021. Thirty years of climate mitigation: lessons from the 1989 options appraisal for the UK. Energy Efficiency, 14: 37. doi: Opens in a new tab10.1007/s12053-021-09951-2 Open access

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