The UK’s Prime Minister just committed the country to be “Net Zero” by 2050 – some implications and concerns

The UK is the first major economy to commit to this goal.

Here a some implications and concerns.  First from The Guardian:

  • The net zero carbon target will require sweeping changes to almost every aspect of British life, affecting our homes, the food we eat and the way we get around, as well as jobs and businesses across the board.
  • Phasing out coal use and bringing more renewable energy on stream are the key planks of the government’s strategy. Gas has become an increasingly important source of fuel in the last three decades, particularly for domestic heating, but to reach net zero it will have to be phased out too.
  • Carbon capture and storage will be needed if we are to continue to use any fossil fuels.
  • There are only about 210,000 electric vehicles in the UK, with about 1% of households using an all-electric car and about 2% using hybrids, so tens of millions of cars must be replaced to meet the net-zero target. Public transport, walking, cycling and ways of working that avoid travel will also be part of the solution.
  • The government has pledged to phase out diesel and petrol cars by 2040, but that target should be brought forward to 2030, according to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).
  • Government policy is key to making the built environment – which accounts for roughly 40% of the UK’s carbon footprint – more climate friendly, says Juliet Barfield, architect at Marks Barfield. “The government must regulate if we want to bring down emissions.”
  • Repurposing and refurbishing existing buildings is nearly always preferable to demolishing and rebuilding, unless the existing construction is dangerous or of such poor quality it cannot be remedied. Concrete is one of the most commonly used construction materials, but its emissions are sky-high: if the global concrete industry were a country, it would be the world’s third biggest emitter. Alternative materials from timber to wool are not widely used, and while innovators are working on ways to bring down emissions from concrete – using additives from coffee grounds to beetroot, for instance – it remains a significant source of carbon.
  • Growing more trees is the key plank of the government’s strategy on land use, along with better soil management – Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has set out plans for the UK’s first soil strategy since the “dig for victory” campaigns of the second world war. Soil is one of the world’s biggest carbon sinks, but can also be a major source of carbon depending on the farming techniques used.
  • Urban trees can also be a vital way of reducing carbon, cleaning air pollution and reducing the impact of climate change by providing shade and health benefits. The government has put up £10m for 130,000 new trees in towns and cities in the next two years. There is no national policy on trees, however, and some local authorities and landowners such as Network Rail have embarked on tree-cutting programmes without clear oversight of the environmental costs and benefits.
  • Ultimately, however, meat consumption must be reduced: moving from a high-meat to a low-meat diet would cut emissions by 35%, the CCC found.
  • Sue Ferns, senior deputy director general at Prospect, says: “We need a just transition for all the workers affected and this means we need to work proactively to ensure that the damage inflicted on coal communities in the 1980s is not repeated.”

A response from climate scientist Kevin Anderson:

  • although on the one hand the Government’s “net -zero” proposal is for the UK to make its ‘fair’ contribution to delivering on the Paris Agreement, on the other it is recklessly pursuing UK shale gas (an energy source that is 75% carbon by mass!). Moreover, it recently celebrated both BP’s new Clair Ridge oil platform, with its accompanying quarter of a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, and the new Glengorm gas field, adding a further 100 millions tonnes of CO2. To top it all, they plan to expand Heathrow, facilitating more flights with more fossil fuel consumption and hence more carbon emissions (even with efficiency improvements across the sector).
  • the mitigation proposals of Government and its Committee on Climate Change (the CCC) rely in large measure on future and highly speculative Negative Emission Technologies (NETs)[1]. These technologies exist, at best, as small pilot schemes, and often only in the imagination and computers of professors and entrepreneurs. So in reality we are passing the buck on to our children to invent and deploy technologies to suck the CO2 out of the air that we choose to continue to emit today. The unprecedented and planetary scale of NETs assumed by the Government and the CCC needs to be understood.[2] Already the tentative potential of NETs is being used to undermine the requirement for immediate and widespread decarbonisation, passing further unacceptable burdens and risks onto the next generation.
  • against the advice of their own Committee on Climate Change the UK Government intend to rely on ‘international credits’ whereby they can buy so-called offsets from other countries rather than making the reductions themselves. This is typically paying poorer nations to plant trees, change industrial processes, install renewables, etc. Such developments internationally are necessary to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate commitments, but not as a means for permitting the UK’s ongoing emissions. With the UK’s world leading renewable energy potential we should be making the reductions ourselves not paying others to do it for us.
  • the share of the global ‘carbon budget’ that the UK Government and its Committee on Climate Change assume appropriate for the UK, is far higher than any defensible quota. So the UK not only has significant responsibility for historical emissions, but it is planning to take a disproportionately large slice of the remaining global carbon pie; colonialism thriving in 2019!
  • Finally, and based on work with University of Manchester & Uppsala colleagues, to meet its Paris obligations the UK must achieve zero-carbon energy by around 2035; that’s ‘real-zero’ not ‘net-zero’. This requires an immediate programme of deep cuts in energy emissions rising rapidly to over 10% p.a.; such an economy-wide agenda will need to embed equity at its core if it is to succeed mathematically and politically, as well as morally.

Other concerns

  • But the more egregious loophole is the decision to retain the ability to use international carbon credits to offset Britain’s emissions. This goes directly against the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change, which said only last month that it was “essential that the commitment [to net-zero] was comprehensive [and] achieved without use of international credits”.
  • Using international credits allows Britain to carry on emitting greenhouse gases  while offsetting those emissions by planting trees in other countries or helping pay for low-carbon energy projects. These things need to happen but they should not be instead of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, they should be in addition.
  • the suspicion that, for all the declarations of a climate emergency, the government’s approach is still incremental, based on making green-tinged tweaks to business as usual, in the vain hope that we will somehow creep towards our target of net-zero.


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