Net-zero by 2050: The most ambitious UK climate target?

Science and Technology

The UK government has set its most ambitious climate goal ever: a net zero emission by 2050. On 2nd May, the official adviser to the UK government, Committee on Climate Change (CCC), revealed this new target in a 277-page report. Its carbon budget even includes international aviation and shipping, typically not taken into account for other countries’ targets. The existing UK climate target was first set in law back in 2008, aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. This new climate target means the UK will completely cut all greenhouse emissions and fully meet the obligations under the Paris Agreement by the same date.

The new net-zero goal will change the landscape in both industrial and domestic sectors substantially, requiring tens of billions of pounds of investment every year. Regardless of fear of damaging the economy, the CCC argues the cost is “manageable”, equivalent to 1-2% of GDP each year, and that these changes could also create new businesses and jobs.  

The report outlines changes in need for the largest carbon emitting industries like power, heating and transport. The committee claims that emissions from the UK’s electricity system can be reduced to almost zero, even as its size doubles due to the electrification of the heating and transport sectors. In this setting, low-carbon electricity generation should increase fourfold by 2050, supported by the large-scale deployment of renewable energy such as wind and solar power. Batteries will help address the problem of renewable intermittency, thanks to their rapidly declining cost in recent years. Fossil fuel power plants will gradually phase out – the UK government plans to shut down its last coal-fired plants by 2025. Interestingly, at the beginning of May, the country experienced its first week without using electricity from burning coal (excluding cross-country interconnections) since the 1880s.

Although some climate protesters still argue a goal in 2050 is too far to trace, as the political turbulence will bring a lot of uncertainty to its implementation, the report is still of great importance in our generation.

The decarbonisation of heating in buildings is the most costly part in the whole plan, at approximately £15 billion per year; but this goal is achievable due to a boost in the hydrogen economy . The core measures include replacing natural gas boilers to electric heat pumps or utilising a new high-efficiency energy carrier, hydrogen. In November last year, a nationwide hydrogen project, H21 North of England, launched in the UK as the World’s largest project to reduce carbon emissions. The project aims to convert 3.7 million UK homes and businesses’ heating systems from natural gas to hydrogen, therefore it will prevent 12.5 million tonnes of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere each year. The hydrogen network was first implemented in Leeds, the UK’s third-largest city, while the rest of the UK will see a gradual upgrade.

Electric cars will replace the petrol and diesel cars by 2030, though the best solution for heavy-duty vehicles, whether switching to hydrogen or electrification, is still unclear. Although the government has already set the plan to ban conventional car sales by 2040, the CCC believes that the transition will be reached earlier, driven by the market – the prediction shows that electric vehicles will be cheaper than conventional models by then. Nevertheless, the government must support constructing sufficient charging infrastructure – it requires 1,200 rapid chargers near major roads and a further 27,000 in towns across the nation.

Notably, some sectors are still inherently hard to decarbonise, like agriculture and aviation. These factors will lead to an increasing reliance on substantive greenhouse gas removal technology deployment. According to the CCC report, the UK will need to convert a fifth of farmland for afforestation, biochar and soil carbon enhancement. Tree-planting is expected to reach 20,000 hectares per year across the UK . Livestock, especially cows, is identified as a large carbon emitter. A recent post from The New York Times reveals that livestock accounts for around 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gases each year, equivalent to emissions from all the cars, trucks, airplanes and ships combined in the world today. To achieve the new climate target, people in the UK might have to change their diet to accommodate a 20% reduction in the amount of beef, lamb and dairy.

If other countries follow the UK, there is a 50-50 chance of staying below the Paris Agreement’s 1.5ºC temperature rise limit by 2100.

Local councils across the country have already taken actions for the climate target update. Early this year, Oxford City Council became the first local authority to create a citizens’ assembly to address the climate emergency, as the government tightens its carbon reduction targets. The Council posted: “This will lead to new minimum requirements for us all.” In fact, Oxford had already set its own carbon footprint target – reducing the citywide emission by 40% of 2005 levels by 2020. In April, Oxford announced the launch of Project ‘Local Energy Oxfordshire’ (LEO), a £40 million three-year collaborative project involving both the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University. It aims to develop a sustainable energy system in Oxfordshire that can meet local energy needs whilst mitigating climate change. During the project, for example, on-site renewable generations such as roof-top PV panels will be installed and provide the green electricity, and the heating system in the building will be flexibly controlled to save energy.

Although some climate protestors still argue a goal in 2050 is too far to trace, as the political turbulence will bring a lot of uncertainty to its implementation, the report is still of great importance in our generation. In addition to strikes for the climate happening in many cities including Oxford, this new goal reflects a strong push in the right direction. According to the report, if other countries follow the UK, there is a 50-50 chance of staying below the Paris Agreement’s 1.5ºC temperature rise limit by 2100. Currently, the plan is still under the governments’ consideration and is not been legally binding. Once it is committed, the UK will become “the first major economy to legislate to end its contribution to global warming entirely”, according to the U.K. business secretary Greg Clark. The CCC, who proposed this plan, hopes it could happen as soon as possible, preferably before the big UN summit in September. 

Image Credit: Geograph