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Climate Change – Mitigation and Adaptation: The energy mix – towards renewables

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Minimum time required

30 minutes

Learning objectives

  • To practice reading multi-layered data charts (stacked area charts and nested pie charts)
  • To use graphical information to describe how the world’s energy mix has changed over time
  • To use graphical information to describe how renewable energy contributes to today’s UK energy mix

Resources needed

Methodology and teacher’s notes

Electricity and heat production is one of the biggest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, at around 25%. However, it also provides a range of exciting opportunities for sustainable solutions. Project Drawdown’s ‘electricity’ page (see references) lays out these solutions in a visual friendly way and could be a good starter to introduce this activity to students. Onshore wind turbines and utility-scale solar photovoltaic systems are two solutions that could provide the biggest savings in emissions from the electricity sector.

  1. Discuss with students what they understand by the term ‘energy mix’. You could ask them to guess what percentage of the world’s electricity comes from renewable and non-renewable sources.
  2. Display Our World in Data’s ‘Electricity production by fuel source, World, 1985 to 2022’ on the board (hand out copies of the A4 sheet ‘A percent stacked-area graph: Changes in the world’s energy mix over time’ if you printed it or ask students to visit the weblink). Spend a couple of minutes exploring the percent stacked-area graph and helping the students to figure out how to read it. The most common mistake students make is to compound the areas, e.g. in 2022 Natural gas contributed just under 60% towards the world’s electricity, when in reality it is around 22%. In other words, it is the thickness of the coloured area, not its position. You can demonstrate this visually by hovering the mouse over the text labels.

Hand out the ‘The World’s and UK’s Energy Mix’ worksheets to each student and support them to complete page 1. Answers:

  • Q1: Coal
  • Q2:
    Approximating from static graph:
  • Q3: Around 10%
  • Q4: Around 50%
  • Q5: Students may write something like: By 2040, in a ‘sustainable development’ scenario, use of coal is a lot smaller at around 2% compared to just over 20% under current policies. Renewables would make up around half of electricity production compared to 25-30% (and so on).

If you wish to provide some context for questions 3-5, the figures for 2018 and projections for 2040 come from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2019. Their ‘Sustainable Development Scenario’ (labelled as ‘2040 b’ on the graph handout) is one which is aligned with the Paris Agreement by holding the rise in global temperatures to “well below 2°C … and pursuing efforts to limit [it] to 1.5°C”. Students will note when answering Q5 that there are significant differences between that scenario and ‘current plans’ (2040 a). You may feel this worth discussion with the students. NB: The ‘Paris Agreement’ will be covered in Activity 5, but you may wish to give a quick ‘what is’.

  1. Display ‘What is a nested pie chart? An example’ on the board (hand out copies of the A4 sheet if you printed it). Use it to help students understand how to read a nested pie chart. If students are on computers, they do not visit the website (‘National Grid: Live Status’) until they get to Q8.Important note: If you use the website instead to show how the nested pie charts work, you will note that the labels in the pie and the surrounding doughnut give figures that do not add up to 100%. This is because the percentage share of imported electricity coming via ‘interconnectors’ are not included in the charts. This is a necessary simplification since the country from which the UK has an interconnection has its own energy mix and so would further complicate the picture. You are welcome to explain this to students; indeed, indicating the extent we may or may not be reliant on electricity imports is an interesting discussion itself (e.g. energy security).
  2. Support students to complete the second page of the worksheet. Answers:
  • Q6: Wind

Q7: Approximating from the nest pie chart:

Further challenge and extension

A deeper dive into the recent and relatively sudden increase in wind energy production in the UK may not be necessary for exam preparation, but nevertheless interesting and noteworthy. Also, it is important to investigate whether this rapid change towards renewables, led by wind, can be sustained.

Students can read this article and have a go at one or more of these:

  • Give two reasons why there’s been a reduction in energy demand in the UK.
  • As time has gone on “…more goods were imported rather than manufactured in Britain.” The carbon emissions used to manufacture and transport these goods don’t count towards the UK’s carbon emissions. Do you think that is fair? Why/why not?
  • A limitation of renewables are that they generate variable amounts of energy depending on conditions. You don’t generate any solar energy during the night, for example. The article says that part of the solution is ‘energy storage’. What do you think this means?

Apps to download: There are a couple of very good free smartphone apps that give live updates of the UK’s energy mix which your students can download if they are able: The National Grid (NG) ESO App and GridCarbon.

References, sources and credits:

Sector Summary: Electricity (Project Drawdown), accessed April 30 2024.

World Energy Outlook 2019 (IEA), accessed April 30 2024.

Analysis: Record-low price for UK offshore wind cheaper than existing gas plants by 2023 (Carbon Brief, 20th September 2019), accessed April 30 2024.

View the other lessons in this series:

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