The Bartlett


How to decarbonise the British economy

Developed by an Energy Institute-led consortium, the UK TIMES model underpins government plans to transition the UK to a low-carbon future.

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By 2050, total UK greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 80% compared to what they were in 1990. That was the commitment the UK government made in 2008 with the Climate Change Act.

To get there, the country has five year milestones – or ‘carbon budgets’ – that it has hit if it’s to stay on track. These are legally binding, and by the end of the Fifth Carbon Budget (2028–2032), emissions should already be down by 57%.

When in June 2017, the Committee on Climate Change – the government’s official climate advisers – said a plan was “urgently” needed for how the government intended to achieve that 57% cut, the response was the Clean Growth Strategy, published in October that year. This sets out how the government intends to cut emissions from buildings, transport, electricity and heating, and how they’ll be paid for.

Getting to those answers requires models that can generate scenarios for the evolution of the whole UK energy system based on different assumptions, such as how demand will change, the cost of future technology and energy system, and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that will come with them.

Modelling possible futures

Professor Neil Strachan, Director of the UCL Energy Institute, describes energy models as providing the “integrating language and essential quantitative insights into the 21st century challenges of decarbonisation, energy security and cost-effectiveness”. Which is where the Energy Institute’s wholeSEM research consortium comes in.

Led by the Energy Institute and comprising four partner universities, wholeSEM ran for four years until 2017 and in that time played a fundamental role in the UK’s strategic energy modelling activity. Its UK TIMES model (UKTM), which it developed with the UK Energy Research Centre teams alongside the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), underpins the both the UK government’s Fifth Carbon Budget Report and the Clean Growth Strategy.

In the case of the Clean Growth Strategy, the objective was to use UKTM to first understand the range of possible long-term outcomes of three different economy-wide approaches to decarbonisation. Then to confirm that these were consistent with the targets of the fifth carbon budget and the overall 2050 targets.

The pathways were deliberately selected to illustrate a wide range of possible future, for example: from 100% battery electric cars to 100% hydrogen fuel cell cars, as well as the role of negative emissions technologies bioenergy production and carbon capture usage and storage.

UKTM has become a widely recognised model. It continues to be the UK government’s primary long-term energy model, used by BEIS, the Scottish Government, the Committee on Climate Change and the National Infrastructure Commission. It’s there to assist policy-makers, but also energy supply companies who need to be able to make informed decisions about future technologies and infrastructure, and shifts in consumer behaviour.

In the 2018, The National Grid also started UKTM to assist with decarbonisation analysis. Neil Rowley, Gas Modelling Manager in the National Grid’s Energy Insights Team, said “UKTM allows National Grid to be part of a wider UK energy community all using the same platform”.