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Renewable energy: How does the UK compare to other countries?

The UK is steadily moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. But, we still have a long way to go.

Rampion offshore wind farm in the UK producing renewable energy

Rampion offshore wind farm. The UK government recently failed to auction off wind farm projects.

The climate is in crisis. An overwhelming increase in greenhouse gas emissions over the last 100 years has led to rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and a devastating impact on biodiversity across the globe.

This is mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels such as natural gas, petroleum and coal, which the UK is extremely reliant on. The majority of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuels, which we use for transportation, heating, electricity, and manufacturing processes.

This is despite the UK’s commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, and its position as a world leader in tackling climate change following Cop26

A recent report by former energy minister Chris Skidmore found the UK was “falling behind” in its approach to achieving net zero due to the lack of investment in renewable and decarbonised energy. 

But, is this true? And how does the UK compare to the rest of the world? Of course, different countries have different populations which would vary in their energy needs so one of the simplest ways to measure energy from renewable or green sources is by percentage share of the entire country’s electricity use. 

Energy and climate think tank Ember has measured how much of each country’s electricity generation comes from green energy sources such as nuclear, solar, wind, and hydroelectric power as well as biofuels or fossil fuels up to 2021. How much do we rely on fossil fuels? And which country is leading the way on green energy?

How much of UK energy is renewable?

Currently, the UK continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels for energy production. 

According to the National Grid, 42.3 per cent of electricity from 2022 comes from fossil fuels compared to 35.9 per cent from renewable sources such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, nuclear power, and biomass, which comes from burning food, plants, and organic matter.

23.2 per cent comes from “other sources”, which includes nuclear power. Nuclear electricity is not generally considered to be a renewable energy source.

In total, 59 per cent of the UK’s electricity was generated from sources other than fossil fuels, up from 55.04 per cent in 2021, according to Ember.

Can the UK run on renewable energy?

The short answer is yes. In 2020, the UK had its longest run of coal-free power generation, with a total of 68 days worth of electricity being produced using renewable or zero-carbon energy sources.

Additionally, shifting to renewable energy will be more cost-effective than relying on fossil fuels and will provide energy security for the entire country. 

Wind and solar power are the cheapest sources of new electricity, according to Friends of the Earth, while fossil fuel prices fluctuate regularly. 

The increased cost of energy in the last year is partly attributable to the invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions on Russia, which led to the cost of Russian gas – which the UK imports a lot of – skyrocketing.

How much of China’s energy is renewable?

According to Ember, at least 33.7 per cent of energy used in China comes from solar and wind power due to major expansions by the country into renewable energy.

In fact, China invests in clean energy at a higher rate than any other country.

This may be surprising considering China is also the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, having burned over half of the globe’s coal supply in 2020. 

According to Time magazine, China “hasn’t been able to outrun the growth in energy demand, forcing it to burn more coal and setting a record for consumption”.

How much of Germany’s energy is renewable?

Even though Germany has 20 million more people than the UK, around half of the energy produced there comes from renewable sources.

In 2021, Germany passed the Renewables Energy Act, seeking to ensure both electricity supply and consumption would become carbon neutral before 2050.

The renewable energy produced is mainly based on wind energy and biomass, as well as solar power and hydro power.

How much of Thailand’s energy is renewable?

Despite having a population only slightly larger than the UK’s, only 14.9 per cent of the country’s electricity comes from renewables.

However, the Thai government has set a target of generating 30 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2037, a step towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2065.

Much of Thailand’s renewable energy comes from biomass and hydropower, with solar and wind power making up the remainder.

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How much of France’s energy is renewable?

The UK’s population is roughly the same size as France’s population. 

But, France generated 91 per cent of its electricity from green energy sources in 2021 – more than twice as much as the UK.

The majority of this comes from nuclear power, the rest coming from a mixture of solar, wind, and hydropower. It currently has the largest share of nuclear electricity in the world.

The country aimed to generate 23 per cent of its energy from solely renewable sources – which nuclear is not widely considered to be – by 2020 but did not meet this goal as it only produced 19.1 per cent of its energy from renewable sources. 

But, former environment minister for France Brice Lalonde previously said: “If the objective is to reduce emissions, then let’s make room for nuclear power… Let’s accept the idea that it is more or less equivalent to renewable energies in the fight against climate change.”

nuclear power plant producing green energy
Nuclear Power Plant. Nuclear energy is not usually considered renewable. (Image: Johannes Plenio/Unsplash)

How much of Portugal’s energy is renewable?

Portugal generated 63 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources in 2021, which is one the largest proportions of green energy use in Europe – though its population size is only one-sixth of the UK’s population. 

In recent years, the country has made massive strides in increasing its use of solar, wind, and hydro power rather than fossil fuels or nuclear power.

It is now aiming to increase the proportion of renewable energy use to 80 per cent by 2026, four years earlier than previously planned.

The government in Portugal closed two coal-fired power plants in 2021, and are aiming to become net zero by 2050.

Energy secretary João Galamba, previously told reporters: “It has become clear that we need a significant acceleration in the transition from fossil to renewable energy sources in this decade and that solar will continue to play a key role in this process.”

solar panels producing renewable energy in Lincoln, Nebraska
Solar power plant in Lincoln, Nebraska. Solar power is considered the cheapest source of energy. (Image: American Public Power Association/Unsplash)

How much of Sweden’s energy is renewable?

Sweden, whose population is also only one-sixth of the UK’s population, relies heavily on green energy sources instead of fossil fuels. 

The country generates 68 per cent of its electricity from hydroelectric power, wind power, biofuels, and a further 29.8 per cent is generated from nuclear power.

Sweden currently has three nuclear power plants with six nuclear reactors in operation for electricity generation.

The country has also committed to generating 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2040.

Sweden consumes more energy per person than the UK but its carbon emissions are much lower. According to statistics from the World Bank, the average Brit emits at least 1.5 times more carbon dioxide per year than the average Swede.

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Who is the world leader in green energy?

According to Ember’s data from 2020, Iceland runs entirely on renewable energy. 75 per cent of its electricity comes from hydropower and 25 per cent from geothermal power, taking advantage of the volcanic activity in the region.

Originally, Iceland switched to green energy due to the fluctuations in oil and gas prices, and domestic renewable energy sources provided energy security for its population of 400,000 people.

Costa Rica and Norway are also world leaders in renewable energy, with both countries getting 99 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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