How Will the UK Meet The Net-Zero Carbon Emissions 2050 Pledge?
The UK has announced a legally-binding target of “net zero emissions” of greenhouse gases by 2050.
The plan is to give us a 50/50 chance of keeping the increase in global average temperature to a minimum of 1.5 degrees.
The target was recommended in a report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), a statutory body set up to advise the government on the climate emergency.
“Net-zero emissions” means reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80% of amounts produced in 1990 and removing the same amount as we produce from the atmosphere either through carbon capture and storage (CCS) or carbon offsetting.
The move makes the UK likely to be the first G7 economy to legislate for net-zero.
How will we be affected by the net-zero emissions by 2050 policy?
The plan will likely have an impact on all areas of our lives. At home, at work, on holiday, in the supermarket and beyond. Overall, the government believes the target can be achieved at a cost of between 1% and 2% of GDP by 2050.
The areas mainly affected can be broken down into:
How will we heat our homes?
Due to the variety of home designs, there is no one solution to providing carbon-neutral heating. Meeting the emissions target will require a range of technologies including heat pumps, district heating, gas boilers, hydrogen boilers and hybrid systems.
Heat pumps take ambient heat from outside and concentrate it into a higher temperature for use in the home for warming rooms and/or water. Think of it as a kind of reverse-refrigerator. It is a low cost and environmentally friendly solution. Heat pumps are good for generating background heat but are not responsive to spikes in demand such as first thing in the morning, so they need to be supplemented with thermal storage systems. These systems can be charged up at off-peak hours and extra heat can be used when needed.
District heating is useful in urban areas and is already used around the world. It’s basically central heating for whole communities. The heat is produced in one location, then piped out to homes and businesses. Most current networks rely on natural gas, so existing and new networks will have to be powered by cleaner sources or by industrial waste heat.
Hydrogen boilers use catalysts at low temperatures producing only steam and water and, with some minor work, can be swapped out as a replacement in existing gas boiler systems. Natural gas networks will also likely be switched over to hydrogen.
Improvements to the structure of our homes to reduce heat loss and save energy by maximising insulation, draught-proofing, and installing new windows will likely be incentivized by the government.
How will we get around?
Transport’s contribution to carbon emissions can be reduced in different ways.
Firstly, flexible working, working from home or local co-working spaces and greater use of video conferencing and virtual spaces can reduce the need for travel.
Obviously, more use of public transport, walking and cycling would reduce energy use by private cars.
Speaking of cars, as part of a strategy called Road to Zero at least half of new cars are expected to be ultra-low emission by 2030 and by 2040 the UK will end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans. This means a massive increase in the use of electric vehicles. To achieve this, a huge expansion of national charging infrastructure will be needed.
On top of this, carpooling and ridesharing will be encouraged. Many futurologists believe the idea of owning your own car will eventually become a thing of the past with fleets of electric cars distributed like Boris bikes around towns and cities and available to rent at the tap of an app. Some, if not all, will likely be self-driving and capable of bringing themselves right to your front door on demand. Fewer cars used more efficiently would mean less energy required to move us about.
What about our electric supply?
Making our use of electricity compatible with the goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 means national investment in renewables and more focus on nuclear power and household-based strategies like heat pumps and solar power along with the adoption of energy storage technologies. Natural gas can still be part of the package if used alongside CCS. Nuclear power and gas CCS require significant investment and preparation, so renewables are likely to form the bulk of production.
Smart appliances will be encouraged, with new models using more power at off-peak times and less during periods of high demand.
Will we have to stop flying?
According to the European Environment Agency, unless action is taken, global aviation and shipping are together expected to contribute almost 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.
While international air travel is not yet included in the government’s roadmap to 2050 there are a number of possibilities for minimizing aviation industry emissions.
New technologies include hybrid planes which combine an electric motor with the familiar jet engine and fully electric planes could be used for short-haul flights.
However, aircraft are built and bought to last, modern planes can be expected to still be flying 30 years from now. So, another way to reduce the impact of aviation would be to focus on consumer demand.
Short-haul journeys could be replaced with train journeys, although a lot would need to be done to make rail journeys more appealing in terms of price, comfort and speed.
While for long-haul there are few alternatives, research in 2014 found that 70% of flights in the previous year had been made by just 15% of people and that 50% of respondents had not made any flights. A carbon tax introduced on airfares to curb demand would therefore only have a significant impact on a small minority of the most frequent flyers.
How can changing my diet affect climate change?
Domestically, animal rearing, land use, road transport, processing and packaging all contribute towards the climate emergency. Additionally, much of the food consumed in the UK is imported and much of the food produced here is exported which involves shipping or air freight emissions on top of the previous factors.
Reductions in consumption of meat and dairy products could be encouraged. Farm animals have a large impact on the climate due to methane production, an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Lowered consumption could also free up land for forests, peatland and biofuels, all of which can help remove carbon from the atmosphere.
The CCC suggests that by changing from a high-meat diet to a low-meat diet we can reduce our diet’s impact by 35%. New alternatives to animal meat such as the Beyond Burger or the Impossible Burger are joining Quorn and soya products in supermarkets. We recommend trying Iceland’s No Bull burgers and No Porkies sausages. Fast food restaurants are beginning to offer these next-generation veggie burgers too.
Another option, clean-meat, will probably form a large part of reducing farming emissions. This is real meat that is grown in a clean and controlled environment instead of on a living animal in a dirty cage. It is still a few years from appearing on shelves, but the cost has decreased dramatically and it will likely become more affordable than animal meat in the near future, especially if the government decides to put a carbon tax on animal meat.
Food waste is another issue. According to Public Health England, 7 million tonnes are thrown out each year by households, meaning people send 14% of their weekly food shop to the bin. So more emissions are unnecessarily produced to deliver food that is never eaten and the waste goes to landfill, contributing a significant amount of methane as it breaks down. In fact, 90% of all emissions from waste are produced by food.
The Waste and Resources Action Programme recommends educating people about buying food in sensible amounts, storing it correctly, and eating it while it’s still good. For food which is still wasted, solutions include using it as compost for your garden or disposing of it via local food waste services. The CCC has suggested a ban on biodegradable waste in landfill by 2025.
Non-food waste is where the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” philosophy comes in.
Reducing consumption helps lower emissions both during production and through waste disposal. Choosing products with less packaging or by buying in bulk, for example, can help here.
Reuse means buying second-hand, reusing and fixing damaged products instead of buying replacements. If you have no further use for something, donate it to someone or to an organisation.
Recycling helps useful materials avoid landfill, but materials which can’t be recycled can be burned to produce energy while their carbon is captured by CCS.
More generally, people will probably see an increase in the price of goods and services based on how carbon-intensive they are as an incentive to use low-carbon alternatives.
How else can we reduce emissions?
Reducing emissions is part one of the solution, “negative emissions” is part two. Negative emissions means actively removing carbon from the atmosphere, for example by planting forests, restoring habitats and capturing carbon in the soil. The CCC recommends 1.5 million hectares of woodland should be planted by 2050.
Using more renewable wood in construction can also help. The concrete industry is a massive contributor of CO2. If it was a country, it would be the third-largest producer of CO2 on the planet. Growing wood absorbs carbon and by using it in construction it is locked up for decades or centuries.
More radical is direct air carbon capture and storage. This technology captures carbon from the atmosphere and traps it permanently. Although this may eventually come to play a large part in how humanity deals with its climate emergency, it’s at an early stage and cannot be relied on yet.
Overall, we can expect huge changes over the next few decades. The spread of the transformation over many different areas of our lives will be incremental at first, but will no doubt speed up with time.
The question is, will it be enough and will other countries do their part?