What Needs to Happen in the UK’s Journey to Net Zero

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government’s statutory adviser, has published its progress report this month making a number of recommendations on how to cut emissions. The report says that the UK needs to act urgently if there is any chance of the UK reaching its target of hitting net zero emissions by 2050.

There is a considerable amount of misunderstanding about what net zero means among the public generally. Most people are aware of the ‘net zero’ target for cutting the carbon emissions that cause climate change but don’t know what it means or what they can do to help achieve it. The UK government describes net zero as meaning “that the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions would be equal to or less than the emissions the UK removed from the environment”.

To explain in a little more depth, Jacob Roberts, Infrastructure Strategy Specialist, says that while “zero emissions” implies that no fossil fuels will be burnt and no emissions released, net zero acknowledges that some carbon emissions are unavoidable, but instead can be offset by, for example, capturing and storing CO2 or by planting trees. In other words, if you emit 100 tonnes of carbon a year and you offset 100 tonnes of carbon a year, you’re at net zero.

The CCC have set out a number of pointers to help guide the UK towards its ultimate goal in 2050.

To start on a positive note, by far the biggest progress we’ve made in cutting carbon emissions has been in changing the way we generate electricity. We have almost completely replaced coal power generation with clean renewable generation from wind, solar and biomass. However, there is still a great deal to be done.

Currently housing is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, along with transport. The CCC advises a national plan to be developed to make the UK’s draughty homes more energy efficient by insulating them. This would create thousands of new green jobs much needed to help a beleaguered UK come out of the Coronavirus recession.

One of the biggest challenges to reducing emissions is the widespread use of gas boilers in the UK. Over 90% of people use gas or oil to heat their homes and water. Available alternatives such as ground-source heat pumps have been slow to take off but the CCC warns that if low-carbon heating doesn’t become the main form of domestic heat by the early 2030s it will be difficult to reach the net zero target. Other sources of renewable heat energy can come from a wide variety of sources including solar panels, boilers that burn biomass or low carbon gases including hydrogen.

The CCC has suggested that now would be a good time to raise fuel duties as oil prices are at an all-time low and so wouldn’t hit consumers as much. They say that what essentially amounts to a carbon tax could bring in about £15bn in government revenues which could be used for other green measures such as inducements to encourage motorists to switch to electric vehicles.

The UK is currently in it’s third carbon budget which prohibits the UK from releasing any more than 2,540 million tonnes of carbon emissions between 2018 and 2022.

To give you an idea of the amount of carbon emissions that constitutes, you would have to drive your car for over a lightyear to emit that much.

Although the UK is on track to fulfil the target set in the third carbon budget it still has a long way to go in order to become net zero by 2050.

Earlier in the year, the prime minister pledged to bring forward the phasing out of diesel and petrol vehicles to 2035. Despite opposition to this by car manufacturers the CCC says its research shows that the changeover to electric vehicles could happen as early as 2032. There continues to be more choice than ever when it comes to electric vehicles, as manufacturers launch new models with ever increasing ranges and faster charging times. 

The CCC also makes recommendations about agriculture and land use. They call for more tree planting and the restoring of peatlands, wetlands, and other natural carbon sinks which they believe could also generate new jobs across the UK in both rural areas and in cities where green space is disappearing. They advise that the agriculture bill going through parliament should offer an opportunity for more nature friendly farming that can help lock carbon into vegetation and soils, turning agriculture from a major source of emissions to a net absorber.

The CCC recognises the opportunity afforded by the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and believes it’s a good time for the government to step in with reskilling and retraining programmes. According to the report thenet zero economy will require a net zero workforce.  This will include everything from installing low-carbon boilers and home insulation to improving broadband networks (allowing more home-working) and creating jobs in expanding industries such as offshore wind.

Research and innovation are also on the CCC’s agenda for change. If the UK is to become a centre of low-carbon development after leaving the EU it will be vital to embark on an extensive programme of targeted research and innovation in low-carbon technologies. Funding is needed in technologies that show some promise including hydrogen fuel and the development of carbon capture and storage in depleted oilfields under the North Sea.

The CCC found that approximately half of employed people were working from home in April at the height of the pandemic which showed that home working is possible. As a result of this changed behaviour during lockdown there was a marked decrease in carbon emissions as far fewer people were driving to work. The CCC would like to see employers encouraged to make this a permanent change if possible. In order to achieve this, new infrastructure is needed to help people continue to cycle and walk to work. They feel that the public sector should lead people by example in encouraging remote working.

The CCC sees a need for housebuilders and homeowners to adapt the UK’s housing to better deal with hotter summers, one of the effects of the climate crisis. One idea would be to grow thick ivy on the walls of buildings to prevent overheating they say. They also suggest that ministers who have pledged to spend £5bn on flood defences, should bring this action forward to protect homes and create green jobs.

According to the CCC reaching net zero emissions could cost tens of billions of pounds per year and around 1–2% of national wealth each year by 2050. However, what’s clear is that not aiming for net zero is not an option. It would be more costly to allow runaway climate change and so it is impossible to put a price on the benefits of achieving net zero.

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