The past month has seen unprecedented attention paid to climate change in the UK. The central London protests by Extinction Rebellion captured the headlines, as did Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s visit to parliament last month. Then only last week, the House of Commons voted unanimously to declare a climate change emergency.
It was perfect timing, therefore, for the publication by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) of its blueprint for reaching the zero carbon nirvana that the likes of Extinction Rebellion dream about.
The remit for the statutory climate change adviser was to examine whether the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions target could be ramped up to so-called net zero level. This would be an increase on the target of 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050, which has been the lodestar of UK energy policy since the passage of the Climate Change Act in 2008.
The answer in the CCC’s 277-page report is that the more ambitious goal can be achieved without beggaring the UK.
Net zero target
The committee’s core conclusion is that a net zero carbon target is achievable by the middle of the century. The cost of getting there would be equivalent to 1 to 2 per cent of GDP, estimates the report.
This is roughly similar to what the CCC reckoned reaching 80 per cent reduction would cost when this target was set a decade ago. Plummeting costs of certain renewable technologies, notably offshore wind and solar, means that decarbonisation can be achieved at a lower cost than was then envisaged.
The committee’s decision to stick with the 2050 end date will be seen as lily-livered in more radical quarters, like Extinction Rebellion, which has called for UK to decarbonise by 2025.
Lord Turner, the CCC’s first chair and current chair of industry grouping the Energy Transitions Commission, told a briefing ahead of the report’s publication that the commission thought net zero could be achieved as early as 2045 with “real effort and some behavioural change”.
Chris Stark, chief executive of the CCC, told the report’s press launch that it is “perfectly possible” that the 2050 target date might be revisited, but for now it is the “correct” date.
According to Lord Deben, the committee’s chair, the body has taken a deliberately cautious view which doesn’t rely on speculative technologies or solutions. He said: “You have to be realistic about how much change in people’s behaviour you can expect or reasonably want.”
Dr Jonathan Marshall, head of analysis at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, tells Utility Week that 2050 is a “very pragmatic” target. While 2045 would have been “more ambitious”, he points out that the CCC has factored into its calculations all greenhouse gases together with the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping.
Doug Parr, head of policy at Greenpeace, says he is “not disappointed” by the 2050 target. “Within the remit they were given and assumptions they are required to make, this was the outcome one might have expected.”
While the goal may be feasible, getting to net zero will be far from a stroll in the park. Driving down emissions will involve faster than anticipated electrification of transport and the decarbonisation of heating.
The government’s existing target that no new internal combustion engine cars and vans should be on sale from 2040 will have to be brought forward by five years at the “very latest” and “ideally earlier” , the CCC recommends, so that by 2050 “very few” petrol and diesel vehicles will still be on the road
It also entails much faster progress on domestic heating. The government announced in last month’s spring statement that by 2025 no new-build homes will be allowed to fit fossil fuel heating systems. The CCC wants to step this up, implying that the sale of gas boilers be banned outright by 2035, so that anyone replacing their boiler would have to install a low-carbon system.
The CCC recommends that taxes and regulatory costs, which apply to gas and electricity, should be reviewed in order to better reflect the amount of carbon that both fuels use. Rebalancing these costs would strengthen the case for private householders to switch to electric forms of heating, it says.
In order to allow supply chains to develop, the 2020s must see strategic decisions on the large-scale deployment of heat pumps together with much faster progress on the roll out of hydrogen for heating.
The more stretching zero emissions target also means that natural gas will have to be retired from the electricity generation system sooner than anticipated.
The 80 per cent target allowed a residual element of natural gas generation but this will no longer be possible if emissions must be eliminated from the electricity system in order to meet the wider goal.
“Even where we have peaking plants, they will need to be fuelled by hydrogen or other low carbon sources,” says professor Jim Watson, director of the UK Energy Research Centre. And Parr agrees. “By definition gas will be off the system and will have to be playing a very minor role by 2030 and certainly by 2035,” he says.
And while the report assumes that Sizewell and Bradwell nuclear power stations will have come on stream by 2050, nuclear merits only a handful of references in the report.
The diminished profile of nuclear power reflects the sector’s struggles to compete cost effectively with renewable sources, says Marshall: “There is a lot of concern about nuclear being delivered at the right price.
Referring to ongoing work by civil servants at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), he says: “Even if there is a new funding mechanism for nuclear, it’s still going to be running to keep up with the falling cost of renewables.”
The CCC is putting its faith in renewable energy to deliver the goal of a quadrupling of low-carbon generation. This includes the deployment of “at least” 75GW of offshore wind, which would be a tenfold increase on the 7-8GW currently installed.
Juliet Davenport, chief executive and founder of renewable energy supplier Good Energy, says that while the CCC’s ambition is welcome, its report puts too much emphasis on big renewable projects rather than a more decentralised system of micro-generation.
“You have nearly 6GW of solar on roofs today. This is a real opportunity to reset our energy generation system so it doesn’t flip back into an old-fashioned, centralised system, putting control in the hands of the few, not the many.”
The CCC sees a growing reliance on electricity for heat and transport resulting in the need for a significant upgrade of transmission and distribution networks.
The report says that is “essential” that when grid capacity is upgraded, it is future-proofed so that the physical infrastructure is big enough to accommodate the increases in capacity that will be needed before 2050.
This makes particular sense when carrying out network upgrades, according to the CCC, given that much of the cost of carrying out the work is the civil engineering rather than the kit itself.
It is “important” therefore that this additional investment is factored in by Ofgem in the upcoming 2023-28 RIIO2 network price control framework.
The transmission network will also need to keep pace with the roll out of giant new offshore wind farms envisaged by the CCC.
It’s a big menu, which given the more stretching nature of a net zero target, the UK no longer has the luxury of tackling step by step, says UKERC’s Watson: “This really means moving on all fronts at once.”
In turn, greenhouse gas reduction must become a priority across government rather than just within BEIS, he adds: “This really requires decision making across government at all levels, not just BEIS and Treasury.”
That would include emissions reduction being factored into the Green Book, which the Treasury uses to appraise investment projects and priorities, Watson adds: “It has to be at that level so that every time government is considering a policy or an investment, it has to be seen in the light of compliance with net zero.”
And given the steeper nature of the challenge, the government must also be more willing to embrace regulation rather than relying on the market to deliver change.
Pointing to the successful roll out of lower emissions gas condensing boilers, he says: “Where it has been tried, regulation has brought about rapid change in circumstances where alternative technology is ready.”
And one of the differences between the current and next phase of the UK’s decarbonisation journey is that consumers will have to be involved a lot more, for example when their heating system has to be replaced. Stark says: “The things we’ve done so far in the UK, particularly decarbonising the power sector, have been made without consumers having to engage.
“If we are to get to the next stage of net zero the consumer will have to be engaged.”
And that will require a greater level of public debate about emissions reduction than has taken place so far.
Simon Clark, MP for Middlesbrough, expresses confidence that there is strong cross-party support for net zero.
At the pre-CCC report briefing, the Conservative backbencher said the government should capitalise on one of the rare areas where cross-party consensus exists to push through the legislation that will be needed to make it binding.
He said: “There is a lot of will to make this happen. There’s a lot of dead time at the moment in parliament and real frustration among MPs that we are here for long hours but a lot of the time we are not that occupied.
“If we can harness energy and enthusiasm in parliament, it would be something very worthwhile to achieve at a time when reputation of UK politics is not at its highest.
“If you look at what we could conceivably introduce in the next parliament, I can’t think of anything that trumps this in terms of seriousness or goes more to the heart of what we are about as a nation.”
The CCC has thrown down the gauntlet to the government by declaring that net zero can be achieved, says former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Deben: “You can do it and if we don’t, it’s because you have chosen not to do it.”
Key role envisaged for hydrogen
Mass deployment of hydrogen as a fuel will be key to the UK achieving its 2050 net zero emissions ambition, according to the CCC report.
Gas distribution networks will either have to be decommissioned or, if feasible, repurposed to hydrogen by the middle of this century, according to the CCC.
The report sees a role for hydrogen in areas where the electric grid may reach “limits of feasibility and cost-effectiveness”, such as providing heat for industrial and buildings on colder winter days.
But unlike in the field of renewable power, this ambition enters territory that has not yet been proven as a large-scale commercial proposition.
The UK must find out quickly how significant a role hydrogen can play in decarbonising the heating system, says UKERC’s Watson: “We need large-scale trials involving thousands of homes to get evidence to see if it’s a goer and to decide what regulations would be appropriate for that option.”
Efforts to boost hydrogen must go hand in hand with a viable CCS (carbon capture and storage) industry, says the CCC.
The first CCS clusters in areas, like those containing large amounts of heavy industry, must be operating by the mid-2020s. All of these regional clusters must have CO2 infrastructure by around 2030, by which point hydrogen production should have started at scale.
And it will not be possible to eliminate the hardest-to-reduce emissions, like those from aviation, says the CCC. There will have to be mechanisms in place to offset these emissions, like direct air capture of CO2 and more controversially plants that combine biomass burning and CCS. The UK could require 75-175 megatonnes of CO2 to be stored annually by 2050, the committee estimates.