From coal phase-out to net zero: Driving factors of UK climate policy

Environmental Science & Policy


In order to still be able to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, global net greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to zero by the middle of the century. One decisive step towards this goal will be phasing out coal. The UK has led the way as one of the first countries to not only phase out coal by 2024, but also set a net zero target for 2050. Based on 22 expert interviews, we analyse which objectives, actors, and contextual factors were relevant for the two decisions, and which continuities emerge in UK climate policy. We find that the coal phase-out was not primarily driven by the decision to phase out coal in 2015, but by policies (e.g., the CO2 price) and other contextual factors (e.g., the old coal fleet) that were not initially associated with the phase-out. The recommendations by the Committee on Climate Change, a general political mood calling for more climate protection, and the Conservative Party’s desire to show climate protection ambitions played an important role in the net zero decision. Continuities driving both decisions can be seen in the relevance of scientific expertise in UK politics, strong social movements, favourable cost arguments, and a political consensus emerging among the relevant political parties. From a climate justice perspective, however, industrialised nations such as the UK should become carbon neutral sooner than 2050, given the historical responsibility for carbon emissions and economic preconditions that countries in the Global South do not have.


  • Europa-Universit ̈at Flensburg, Center for Sustainable Energy Systems (ZNES)

  • Workgroup for Infrastructure Policy (WIP), TU Berlin