It’s certainly a bold vision: an emission-free world by the end of this century. That was the bold target agreed at the Paris climate change summit.
And last week, energy and climate change minister Clair Perry announced that the UK would be swinging behind this objective by asking the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) for advice on how the UK’s greenhouse gas cuts targets should be strengthened in the light of the 2015 agreement. The UK, along with 194 other countries, committed to cutting carbon emissions to zero during the second half of this century in order to help stem increases in global temperatures.
The CCC will be asked to begin its work later this year when the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has delivered its own report showing the impact of rising temperatures and the steps that can be taken to mitigate them.
Both New Zealand and Sweden have already signed up to the net zero emission goal, while the European Commission has launched a similar exercise to that being undertaken in the UK. Nevertheless, Perry’s move puts the UK near the front of queue in terms of action to tackle rising emissions.
Jonathan Marshall, energy analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), says: “It’s a step in the right direction. As the first nation to industrialise and which until recently had fairly polluting electricity systems and industry, we have started to take a lead.”
But is the net zero target feasible or just empty sloganeering?
The government’s request aligns with the CCC’s own advice published in January this year. In its assessment of the clean growth strategy, published in January, the CCC recommended that it should provide advice on the implications of the Paris agreement for the UK’s long-term emissions target.
Perry’s announcement also follows a report last month from the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute, which concludes that the government needs to go further than the targets set out in the Climate Change Act, which only applies until 2050.
It says that a “net zero” target, which goes beyond the 80 per cent cut enshrined in the 2008 act, is required in order to prevent worldwide temperatures rising 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, the critical level identified in the Paris agreement.
Professor Sam Fankhauser, lead author of the Grantham report, expects that it will take about a year both for the CCC to conduct its review and for the government to respond. This would put the UK on track to deliver net zero emissions plan by the end of 2020. This work would also tie into the process for drawing up the sixth carbon budget, covering the period from 2032 to 2038. “That’s when we need it because then we will need to start thinking about the sixth carbon budget,” he says
Chaitanya Kumar senior policy adviser at Green Alliance, agrees: “The CCC needs to be advised on the sixth carbon budget by the end of 2020.”
Despite the oft-cited urgency of action to tackle climate change, Fankhauser believes that Perry’s approach is the right one.
Waiting for the IPCC’s conclusions will give UK policy makers a better handle on what needs to be done, he adds: “It’s not just that she wants a net zero target but that she wants the right process.”
The UK has successfully driven down the amount of carbon created by electricity generation, which now ranks behind transport as the biggest contributor to carbon emissions.
Fankhauser says the power sector should be zero carbon by the second half of the century thanks to a combination of cheap renewables and improved battery storage.
Some thorny political issues will need to be addressed though Lawrence Slade, chief executive of Energy UK, says: “The energy sector has made great strides in generating cleaner, greener electricity at ever-falling costs and is committed to finishing the job, but if we are to go further and faster it will be vital to continue those programmes which have successfully delivered change, including facilitating a route to market for the lowest cost renewables.”
The next challenge for generation, he says, is whether it can actually take carbon out of the atmosphere through a combination of burning sustainably-sourced biomass and carbon capture and storage plants.
But the knottiest problems are no longer in power generation but in areas like transport, which is now the biggest contributor to carbon emissions.
Slade says that the government needs to place continued emphasis on the decarbonisation of transport and make energy efficiency and the decarbonisation of heat a national infrastructure priority.
Kumar suggests that the government could make a start on tackling this particular problem by rolling out across the rest of the UK the 2030 ban on sales of internal combustion cars proposed in the draft London environment plan.
And technical solutions, albeit costly ones, exist for decarbonising heat, says Fankhauser. “Heating is more a political and economic rather than a technical problem because you could mandate that everybody must have a heat pump. It would be hugely costly, and everyone would be upset but we could be net zero in heat.”
But in many other areas it is hard to even see feasible technological solutions, admits Fankhauser, namechecking aviation, agriculture and certain parts of industry.
However, starting to think about these problems now, rather than setting a longer-term target, gives the industry more time to develop technological solutions, he says: “If we know that we need net zero 60 years from now the technologies don’t exist. We have to take action now so that technologies are there when we need them.”
ECIU’s Marshall agrees: “We need to get policies working so we will have policies to set us up to achieve the tougher long-term goals.”
One of the key questions facing the CCC will be whether the UK should seek to buy carbon offsets from places that may find it easier to decarbonise.
But this kind of flexibility, which could be key to achieving net zero ambitions, risks being undermined by the UK’s impending departure from the EU’s emissions trading system, says Kumar. “If you are not tied into the ETS you lose important flexibility.”