Heads or tails: achieving Net Zero by 2050

Blog by Claire Copeland

Another climate report and another urgent call for action, along with a dizzying array of graphs and figures. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), who advise the UK government on policies and planning for a low carbon economy, have produced their analysis and recommendations on how to stop UK’s contribution to global warming by 2050. This follows the “Paris Agreement” signed in December 2015 where the UK, along with 196 other countries, agreed to reduce their nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The CCC’s excellent and thorough report makes for some tough reading; not for its 277 pages and plethora of statistics and figures, but for the scale of collective effort required. The benign-sounding estimate of costs – 1-2% of GDP – disguises the extent of system change and efforts required, not only of government and businesses, but households as well.

Technological fix is not enough

For net zero emissions in the UK; industry and transport need to be completely decarbonised as well as almost entirely how we heat buildings. CCC suggests this can be achieved with electrification and hydrogen technologies, requiring deployment of four times the current level of renewables. Critically, this also depends on the deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS), including net negative technologies such as bio-energy carbon capture and storage (BECCS), and some direct air capture (DAC) to take CO2 from the air and sequester underground. BECCS and DAC are needed because of the difficulties in decarbonising aviation and shipping.

Carbon capture and storage technology in Alberta, USA (Free image)

The UK has so far had little success in getting CCS off the ground: In 2015, the then chancellor George Osborne, said it was “too costly” and pulled the plug on £1 billion of government funding. This makes deployment of CCS at the scale required much more difficult. However, there has been recent renewed interest from the government in CCS, but this is with a smaller pot (£20 million) and with broader ambitions to include industrial decarbonisation.

Much is made in the report about progress to date and the fall in the cost of deploying renewable technologies, particularly from wind. The CCC’s estimate of costs, incredibly, is a similar size relative to GDP as they estimated for achieving the Climate Change Act 2008. However, the UK is not on track to meeting its obligations set out in 2008, and there is also no guarantee that renewables will remain low cost. Wind turbines have towers made from steel and industrial decarbonisation efforts, whether here or elsewhere, could lead to that steel becoming substantially more expensive. For example, a fossil free steel plant initiative in Sweden, predict rising global demand could result steel prices increasing 20-30%. This will impact on the cost of wind power and potentially result in questionable financial viability if deploying in places that are less favourable for wind.

Rampion Wind Farm seen from the coast of Brighton. Photo by Dominic Alves shared under CC BY 2.0 license

But all these technologies will not be enough. As has been highlighted by some news articles so far, efforts to change consumer behaviour will also be needed: Flights will need to be curbed and a switch in diets away from meat, poultry, fish and dairy will be needed, impacting on UK’s livestock farmers. If consumer behaviour overall does not shift in the direction and to the extent required, then this will need to be compensated for elsewhere and could result in higher costs.

No better than the toss of a coin?

Even if CCC’s recommendations are implemented, and replicated around the world, the chances of limiting warming to 1.5°C would be over 50%. This means that the chances of success could be little better than the toss of a coin. It is curious that the CCC’s estimate of costs for action under the Climate Act 2008, used higher chances (66%) in limiting warming (to 2°C). By setting the chances of succeeding lower, CCC has reduced the costs and efforts required. Presumably so as to make this politically palatable.

This does not appear to be consistent with the Paris Agreement’s requirement for the “highest possible ambition” and there are calls for the UK to cut emissions even faster and be net zero. However reducing emissions faster, say the CCC, would be “very risky”– particularly for the UK economy that would see capital being terminated too early and scrapped.

Talking the talk, but not walking…

While UK Parliament has declared a climate emergency, recent decisions made by the UK government are at odds with halting contribution to climate change: Expansion of Heathrow with an extra 16 million long haul seats available by 2040, and overriding local concerns for shale gas development. While attempts were made to overturn the government’s Heathrow expansion decision this was not successful. Furthermore, without the deployment of CCS, there is absolutely no room for developing new natural gas reserves for UK to become a net zero emissions nation.

Heathrow Airport runway (free image)

Where the burden of costs should fall is going to be a highly politicised issue. The CCC state clearly that the distribution of costs should not only be determined (by the government) as fair, but be perceived to be fair. No matter what the cost is in proportion to the GDP is overall – what will matter is not only the appetite, but crucially the ability, to absorb costs whether it be a particular project, business, employee, consumer, or household.

Costs of mitigating climate change became a hot topic in the recent elections in Finland. The Finns Party campaigned against those costs and resulted in coming second in the election. Given our own problems with whether or not and how to leave the EU, and the lack of understanding of (or even regard to) the financial consequences of doing so, action to mitigate climate change is likely to be a contentious issue.

While there are signs that the public mood is changing, there is no room for complacency and action is needed by each of us, since politics and technological fixes alone will not get the UK to net zero emissions. The right noises have come from UK’s politicians, but this has yet to be translated into the urgent action needed to steer our energy system and economic activity onto the right track. As individuals we also need to do our bit and be willing to change our lifestyles, before nature does this for us. Making sure this transition happens in a way that is fair and just to all is going to be critical to its success.


Claire is a Research Fellow at SPRU working on the CESI (National Centre for Energy Systems Integration) project as well as being part time PhD student. Her principal research interest is in energy futures focusing on the development of narrative scenarios for the UK.

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