Andrew Willshire

Who is brave enough to tell the truth about the 2050 ‘net zero’ target?

Who is brave enough to tell the truth about the 2050 'net zero' target?
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Back in 2009, proposals were published to switch off FM and AM radio completely by 2015. The assumption was that most people in Britain could be persuaded to upgrade to DAB radio within six years. However, in 2018 the BBC announced that it was shelving plans to move away from FM. The upgrade cost proved to be too high. And as the BBC's then-director of radio Bob Shennan pointed out, 'audiences want choice'.

Perhaps this should provide a cautionary tale for the Government as it seeks to meet its commitment to becoming 'carbon-neutral' by 2050 (a date which is conveniently beyond even the wildest estimates of the current Government’s term), let alone the demands of groups like Extinction Rebellion to bring that date forward. A new report by Energy Systems Catapult reaches much the same conclusion.

'Achieving net zero significantly earlier than 2050 in our modelling exceeds even our most speculative measures, with rates of change for power, heat and road transport that push against the bounds of plausibility.'

In particular, regarding behaviour change, the report says

'Our early public engagement suggests a general willingness to adopt new technologies (such as new heating or mobility) as long as these can deliver the same experiences as before. However, approaching the subject of dietary change or aviation often elicits a more resistant and emotional response.'

While phrased gently, the meaning is clear. People are not going to give up sausages and cheap flights to Marbella to meet an arbitrary Government target, particularly as the UK is such a minor contributor to global emissions. If meeting that target is a genuine ambition, then it is foolish to rely on voluntary behaviour change to achieve it.

The core of the report is a set of proposals for energy systems that actually would make a difference to the UK’s emissions. Decarbonising our energy production is achievable and focusing on those technologies would have the additional effect of creating many jobs in a global growth industry. These include:

  • Growing high-energy crops to be burned as biomass with carbon capture and sequestration (storing carbon underground, often in exhausted fossil fuel reservoirs)
  • A total move to electric vehicles, with larger vehicles powered with hydrogen fuel cells
  • Replacing natural gas boilers with hydrogen boilers, delivered using much of the existing gas infrastructure.
  • District heating, where homes in cities tap into a central provider of heat, including biomass Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants and small modular nuclear power generators (similar to those that power nuclear submarines).

Such proposals are sensible ways to meet a difficult target. They are also exciting in terms of future industry. But such technology requires investment. British universities like Strathclyde, Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff, Southampton and Imperial are world-leaders in these areas. As part of its levelling-up agenda, the Government should take the opportunity to increase funding for research and spin-out companies across the regions.

However, it should be acknowledged more widely (as the report does) that the UK has been guilty of creative accounting when it comes to carbon. As legislated for in the Climate Change Act, the key metric is 'territorial emissions', i.e., those emissions that physically arise in a country. Over the last 30 years, the UK has significantly reduced its territorial carbon footprint, but has achieved this to a large extent by off-shoring energy-intensive manufacturing. Moving production of steel and aluminium to China might look good in the statistics, but does nothing for the global environment, nor for jobs in the many parts of the UK that relied on heavy industry. When a steel plant closes in Lanarkshire or Scunthorpe, it isn’t because there isn’t a market for steel; it’s because high energy prices and green taxes have made it unprofitable to produce here. Even worse, the energy for Chinese plants often comes from burning coal, and the produce must be shipped to the other side of the globe for us to consume just the same. And for whose benefit?

So while we may feel good about the increasing amount of our electricity that is generated from wind power, we should at least recognise the environmental damage from extracting the rare-earth metals that are currently vital for their production. There are also similar issues with cobalt and lithium, essential for electric vehicle batteries. Further investment in materials science, and battery and fuel cell research will hopefully help address these issues, areas that British universities also lead.

With a bit of joined-up thinking, the UK could re-invigorate its manufacturing base, provide skilled jobs across the country and make significant steps to reducing our contribution to climate change. A sensible step would be to modify the Climate Change Act so that it focuses on consumption-related greenhouse gas emissions, not just territorial emissions. It might be counter-intuitive, but making energy more affordable in the UK could actually lower our consumption emissions provided that we invest in cleaner generation. However it would mean admitting that the 2050 net-zero target is little more than a soundbite and should be abandoned. In the current climate, it would take a brave politician to do that.