2035 grid decarbonisation ‘increasingly stretching’, warns target architect

Meeting the government’s target to decarbonise the electricity system by 2035 looks “increasingly stretching” due to slow progress on underpinning policy measures, one of the goal’s architects has warned.

Former Climate Change Committee (CCC) head of net zero David Joffe defended the target as “right”, when giving evidence to the House of Lords science and technology committee.

The 2035 target, which was developed by Joffe’s team and recommended by the climate watchdog, was accepted by the government in 2021.

However, Joffe – who left the CCC at the end of last year to oversee a new project on delivery of rapid electricity system decarbonisation for the Royal Academy of Engineering – admitted the 2035 target is now “looking increasingly stretching”.

This is not because it is the “wrong target” but because the policy response to setting it has “not been quick enough”, he said: “We are now two and a half years on from the government accepting that target, and the progress so far has not been as rapid as one might have hoped.

“We still have not seen the plan for how that will be achieved,” Joffe said, giving as an example that government plans for hydrogen and carbon capture readiness due out this spring have not yet been published.

Lack of clarity about how much gas generation will be required in the 2030s means that “no-one may be willing” to build new such plants, despite the government’s recent announcement that they will be needed to ensure energy security, he said: “The danger is that we get neither the clean solutions that we want nor the unabated fossil fuel solutions that the government have now said we will need, because there is a lack of clarity.”

But the chief value of targets is to “concentrate minds” on goals and that it would not matter much if the 2035 target was missed by a couple of years, Joffe said: “If we end up getting to a fully decarbonised system a year or two later than the target, the amount of extra emissions that would come from that is very small.”

Joffe told the committee, which was gathering evidence for its ongoing inquiry into long duration storage, that it is “a gap” that the government hasn’t been as “explicit as they might have been about the role of hydrogen”, given the valuable role it could play in balancing supply and demand for electricity.

And he said the REMA (review of electricity market arrangements) consultation is “much less focused” on getting generation built than on how the electricity system will operate in the 2030s.

Adam Bell, head of policy at Stonehaven, told the committee if Labour wins the next election, delivering its 2030 grid decarbonisation target will require cross-government organisation “on a scale not seen for a very long time”.

He said that the opposition’s goals will require action across the planning system, transmission and generation, as well as the design of “novel mechanisms” to deliver “at pace”.

Bell, who was head of energy policy at the former Business Energy and Industrial Strategy department, agreed with Joffe that Labour missing its 2030 target by a couple of years does “not really matter against the overall challenge of decarbonisation”.

He also said that the government’s current proposals for a system of ‘cap and floor’ contracts for long duration storage, would deliver “a couple” of pumped hydro projects in Scotland, and perhaps some larger batteries and compressed air plans in the south of England.

But Bell said this would not be an “optimal grid mix” because any pumped hydro projects are likely to be subject to be constrained from exporting ” for some time” from Scotland.