Optimism and doom in achieving net zero

Claire Copeland reports back from the Achieving Net Zero conference in Oxford

Anthropogenic activities have now emitted greenhouse gases to such an extent, that this has now contributed to an increase in average global temperatures of 1.1°C and rising at 0.2-0.25°C per decade. The havoc this is having on our weather systems and climate is already obvious for all to see, and further warming will make this worse. There is now an intent around the world to limit any further warming. The Paris Agreement, a landmark agreement between countries party to the UNFCCC to pursue best efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C, came into force in November 2016. This has now been ratified by 185 out of the 197 parties. Earlier this year, the UK became the first major economy to set a “net zero” emissions target by 2050 in making the country’s contribution to the Paris Agreement goal. Many other countries have since either set net zero targets or are in the process of making them law.

tree in front of Oxford University building
Wadham College, University of Oxford, venue for Achieving Net Zero conference (Image by Claire Copeland)

Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute held a conference on “Achieving Net Zero” this month, attended by academics, policymakers, NGOs and businesses to discuss what net zero means and how this can be achieved. Having attended a range of talks and heard from speakers from a wide range of disciplines, I was struck by the two contrasting attitudes to net zero that are best described as optimism and doom.  

The source of optimism at the conference came from a distinctly technocratic perspective, saying that we know what we need to do, all the technological solutions are here and are affordable, therefore, let us now get on with it. The sense of doom came predominantly from social scientists and general political observations highlighting the profound change required in how we conduct our lives. This latter camp expressed dismay and almost resignation that recent actions and direction by some political leaders seem to be leading us away from, and not towards, the net zero goal.

The huge gap between these two camps was palpable over the course of the two days and disappointingly, very little was said as to a way forward to bridge it. Arguably, bridging this gap goes to the very heart of achieving the net zero goal. It is not enough to develop the technological solutions; what is required is a profound and fundamental change to the system and culture affecting and trapping us in our everyday patterns of consumption. A couple of talks at the conference stood out to me offering promise in achieving the critical but unprecedented change; one by the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the other from Climate Outreach.

XR appealed to attendees of the need to go beyond going to such conferences and getting involved in spreading the word with non-violent direct action. It is clear that for a net zero world, significant parts of the current economy need to be phased out, and there will of course be resistance to this. XR argued that only publishing academic papers and attending mainly academic conferences implies that the scientific findings are not as bad as they are made out. What is implied is that by only reporting findings and firmly within academic quarters, authors are accepting that their work can be ignored. The message XR make clear is that as individuals, we are responsible not only in taking action, but also in NOT taking action. To overturn the fabric of the current system, standing together with others on the urgent need to halt contribution to global warming is needed to force authorities – largely to my mind the ‘gate keepers’ of the current system – to take action.

Extinction Rebellion protest in London
 Extinction Rebellion protesters in London on Friday 19th April. (Image by Jwslubbock shared under CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

XR can rightly celebrate the successes they have had in raising awareness of the urgent need for action both with the public and in Parliament. Their non-violent protests, along with the global following of strikes by climate activist Greta Thunberg have resulted in two out of their three main demands having been met; Parliament has declared a climate emergency and a Citizens Assembly on achieving net zero emissions is being established. The demand that has not been met is for a net zero target to be set for 2025 not 2050. The Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) argue that the UK should set a net zero target ideally for 2025 but no later than 2030. However, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), in their assessment of a net zero Britain conclude that earlier than 2050 would be “very risky” for the economy. As independent advisors to the government on climate change, the CCC recommendation carried greater weight in the setting of the net zero target date.

Climate Outreach highlighted that public support for net zero is very high at 78%. Yet the changes required to achieve this and to what deadline are little understood by the public. Adopting a reusable coffee cup and shopping bag is going to be woefully inadequate when it comes to behavioural changes needed by us all. For the success of achieving net zero, ongoing public support of policies designed to meet the target is going to be critical. This is going to require careful, extensive and effective communication and education. Caution is needed around perceived `buzzwords’. For example, the emergence of talk around a `just transition’, a term used in social sciences and policy to describe an equitable and fair transition to a sustainable economy, could risk switching off some members of the public. Further, there is and will be a danger of the net zero framing being hijacked and used in order to pursue vested interests. Negative emissions technologies such as bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) has this week been used by the NFU for example, to argue for the continuation of livestock farming.

The morality of current state of affairs was powerfully articulated by the wonderful Professor Henry Shue, who says ‘We are the most important humans that have ever lived’. In considering the distribution of burdens and risks across generations, it is clear that if we don’t tackle the risks now, future generations will suffer from increased risk of societal dysfunction and catastrophe, he warned. The people alive today have a last chance to avoid shifting this burden to future generations. Professor Shue says this is our gift to make – the question is, are we, the current population prepared to give it?

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.

Photograph of Claire Carter

Follow Sussex Energy Group Facebooktwitterlinkedin
Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in All Posts
2 comments on “Optimism and doom in achieving net zero
  1. philsharris says:

    Dear Clare
    What are we prepared to give up, personally, every conference-goer should be asked?

    Thanks for this report. I have been making an occasional comment to this series. (See my comment on the Herrington letter on constraints on reaching UK targets for electric cars at Tim Foxon’s July 29th post .)

    I seem to be the only one so far making comments. As a retired scientist perhaps I can stick my neck out. The question I would like to ask is what are they are willing to give up? I know it is hard individually. I try and have tried, but I am an ‘experimentalist’.

    Reducing household needs, particularly for heat, could with determined policy, achieve perhaps 50% reduction by 2050 in total energy demand in the domestic heating sector. Realistically this is largely ‘retrofit’ over this timescale. In 2008, we thought it could with the right policies, be ‘doable’. (short review paper published by OU / ‘Renew’;). Progress so far? – ‘not nearly enough’.

    Can we ask, especially XR, especially the children, what they use in the way of energy and what they have given up?

    PS The NFU’s arguments on British meat production could use a bit of tough analysis. The global sources of protein fodder used by British (and all the other) meat industries needs some tough arguing.

    Phil H

  2. Ed Dearnley says:

    Great blog Claire, thanks!

Leave a comment

Follow Sussex Energy Group on Twitter


The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent Sussex Energy Group.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 102 other subscribers.


Subscribe to Sussex Energy Group's quarterly newsletter