Net Zero UK: chance for Parliament to restore international leadership credentials
by Mike Scott, May 10, 2019
The UK may be in turmoil politically thanks to Brexit, but it has revived its efforts to take a leadership position on climate change, after the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommended that the government adopt a new target of net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, a tightening of the current goal to cut emissions by 80% from 1990 levels. Mike Scott reports for Energy Post
The country that launched the Industrial Revolution may have just launched a new green revolution. Other countries, such as Norway and Sweden, have set net-zero targets, but they both allow for carbon offsets which, as the Economist points out, are “convenient nationally, but incompatible with global decarbonisation”.
The CCC has gone a step further by calling for an end to emissions of all GHGs, not just CO2, and the proposal includes emissions from the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping, both of which are growing fast. “A net-zero GHG target for 2050 will deliver on the commitment that the UK made by signing the Paris Agreement,” the CCC says. “It is achievable with known technologies, alongside improvements in people’s lives, and within the expected economic cost that Parliament accepted when it legislated the existing 2050 target for an 80% reduction from 1990.”
The government is thought likely to accept the recommendation, in the face of strong cross-party support for such a move, backed up by equally forceful backing from the public and business, even sectors that might be expected to resist the move. Everyone, it seems, has seen the writing on the wall.
“Not only is this absolutely the right thing to do, but setting this challenge creates a massive new market for British innovation and engineering to crack.” Harry Theochari, Maritime UK
For example, Harry Theochari, chair of Maritime UK, which represents the country’s shipping industry, said: “The UK maritime sector supports the CCC’s ambition. Not only is this absolutely the right thing to do, but setting this challenge creates a massive new market for British innovation and engineering to crack.”
This level of support would have been unthinkable even a year ago, and it is an indication of the extent to which sentiment has changed on the issue of climate change in recent months, driven by events such as the global climate change school strikes, the Extinction Rebellion protests and the continuing fall in cost of renewable and clean technologies, which make net zero more feasible.
This momentum for a net zero target is not just a UK phenomenon and there is reason to believe that pressure for net zero targets will grow elsewhere. A group of leading European corporations and investors have called on the EU to adopt a similar strategy, not just to combat climate change but to ensure that their businesses can thrive in the future. The companies, including Unilever, Ikea and DSM, said: “Putting climate change at the top of Europe’s agenda will provide business with the clarity and confidence to invest in the sustainable, net zero emissions industries of the future, driving innovation and protecting European competitiveness on a global scale.”
The group pointed out that the combination of science and digital technology is making it clearer what is required from companies and countries alike, which is likely to increase the impetus for more net zero targets.
“Every year more of us are setting science-based targets for our companies’ emissions, we are purchasing clean energy and signing up to renewable energy commitments, using low emission and electric vehicles, converting land to carbon sinks and improving energy efficiency throughout our operations.
“We are doing this because we see the threat that climate change poses to our businesses. The impacts of climate change are already affecting our bottom lines: degrading worker health and productivity, disrupting our operations and supply chains, and damaging assets … A clear, coherent vision from European governments and institutions for climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest will give businesses like ours the long-term guidance we need to invest.”
In response, eight EU countries – Belgium, France, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden – called on other member states to adopt a 2050 net-zero target, as well as to allocate a quarter of the bloc’s next budget to climate-friendly projects.
However, in an indication that the consensus is not universal, heavy coal users Germany, Poland and Italy notably failed to sign up to the proposal.
Nonetheless, the UK’s move is likely to inspire others by showing how moving to net zero can be achieved.
Despite the momentum, it won’t be easy, though. The CCC says that the UK will need to quadruple the amount of low-carbon electricity it generates as well as expand technologies that have virtually no traction at the moment, such as low-carbon heating options like electric heating and heat pumps, carbon capture and storage and low-carbon hydrogen. Other measures that are needed include phasing out fossil fuelled vehicles by 2035 at the latest (compared to the current target of 2040) and stopping biodegradable waste going to landfill.
The Committee warns that to meet the target, the government must introduce “without delay, clear, stable and well-designed policies across the emitting sectors of the economy. Current policy is insufficient for even the existing targets. Government must set the direction and provide the urgency. The public will need to be engaged if the transition is to succeed. Serious plans are needed to clean up the UK’s heating systems, to deliver the infrastructure for carbon capture and storage technology and to drive transformational change in how we use our land.”
The UK could do with some quick wins after the debacle of Brexit – committing to a net zero target offers one and the government should commit to it fully.