The UK has an ambitious target of an 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, to be reached using a series of ‘carbon budgets’ to aid policy development. Current energy systems modelling methods do not explore, or are unable to account for, physical (thermodynamic) limits to the rate of change of infrastructure. The power generation sector has a variety of technological options for this low-carbon transition. We compare physically constrained scenarios that accentuate either carbon capture and storage, fastest plausible nuclear new build, or fastest plausible build rate of offshore wind. We set these in the context of the UK’s legislated fifth carbon budget, which has a comprehensive range of carbon reduction measures with respect to business-as-usual. The framework for our scenario comparison uses our novel system dynamics model to substantiate the policy’s ability to meet 2035 emissions targets while maintaining financial productivity and socially expected employment levels. For an ambitious nuclear new build programme we find that even if it stays on track it is more expensive than offshore wind generation and delays emissions reductions. This affects the cumulative emissions and impacts on the UK’s ability to contribute to international climate change targets. If delays or cancellation occur to the deployment programmes of carbon capture and storage technologies or nuclear new build, we suggest the electricity and decarbonisation targets can by met by a fast growth of offshore wind generation with no change to financial and employment levels.