Is The UK On Track to Reduce Net Zero Carbon Emissions By 2050?

The UK government has committed to an ambitious target of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2050 in order to help tackle climate change. Net zero is the point at which the country is taking as much of these greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere as it is putting in. As part of this end goal, the government recently made further pledges to cut emissions this decade by 68% compared to emissions in 1990 and by 78% by 2035.

However, despite the government’s target for all the UK’s electricity to come from clean sources by 2035, it is currently falling short of what will be required to achieve this. More funding and policy interventions will be needed to reach the net zero goal by 2050. Back in June, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), a group of experts that advise the government said that the UK only had credible policies in place to deliver about a fifth of the cut in emissions necessary for the net-zero goal.

The UK government are currently hosting COP26 in Glasgow where the signatories of the Paris Agreement are setting out their targets for reducing national and global emissions of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change. It’s questionable whether the UK can claim the mantle of climate leadership based on current policy commitments. The emissions projections produced by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, show that greenhouse gas emissions are only expected to fall by 52% relative to 1990, by 2030.

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Successive governments have had relative success in reducing emissions from energy. They fell by 40% between 1990 and 2019 largely due to the closing of coal-fired power stations and more money being spent on solar, wind and nuclear energy.

Wind Power

The UK is leading the world in offshore wind. Presently it has capacity of about 10GW which the government has promised to quadruple by 2030. This increase would generate enough energy to power every home in the UK. Although this is achievable energy companies are concerned that the price, they are paid for wind energy is dropping rapidly which could squeeze their revenues and limit further investment. Another consideration is the need for there to be far more energy storage for the times when the wind does not blow.

Heat Pumps

British homes account for about 14% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions mostly due to gas boiler heating systems and poor insulation according to the CCC.

The UK government has committed to installing 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028. Heat pumps transfer heat from the ground, air or water around a property into its heating system and cost upwards of £8,000.

In terms of numbers, about 35,000 heat pumps were installed in the UK in 2019 compared to about 1.7 million gas boilers being sold each year. There are 23.5 million gas boilers in the UK. The government has banned gas boilers from new builds from 2025. In its latest strategy the government has allotted £450m for the installation of heat pumps over 3 years. Grants of £5,000 will be available for homeowners which would be enough for 90,000 grants and that’s if you ignore any administrative costs. The CCC think the overall number installed each year should be higher than the 600,000 a year target and environmental experts are questioning how the government will meet this target anyway. The scheme is part of a wider package, worth £3.9 billion to decarbonise heat and public buildings.

Insulation

Further to this the CCC has said that insulation rates vital to the decarbonisation of energy in homes are only about a third of what they need to be. The government scrapped the Green Homes Grant scheme earlier this year, which was put in place to help people with the cost of insulating their homes. The latest net zero strategy only mentions insulation once with support promised for low-income households.

Transport

Cars and taxis accounted for 16% of UK emissions in 2019 and in a bid to reduce this the government has said that no new petrol and diesel cars will be sold from 2030. After 2040 you will only be able to purchase zero emissions vehicles. Though the number of electric cars being sold is growing quickly only 10% of cars sold in 2020 were electric. This is up on 2.5% in 2018.  The government has not brought in a scrappage scheme to help incentivise people to buy electric cars though there is a £2,500 grant available for fully electric cars that cost less than £35,000. There are 25,000 charging points in the UK, but the Competition and Markets Authority believes that 10 times that number could be needed by 2030. Huge growth in publicly accessible charging points is crucial for the move to electric cars.

To get people out of their cars the government has spent £338m on walking and cycling infrastructure in England with a view to building a “world class” cycling network by 2040.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, flying made up about 7% of overall emissions and shipping about 3%. There is very little known about how the government plans to reduce them and there are no targets for these sectors yet.  The CCC would like to see a freeze on demand for flights and a strategy to cut emissions from freight transport, aviation and shipping. The government has placed no restrictions on people flying and has claimed that there is technology yet to be developed that will allow domestic flights to be almost emissions free by 2040, and international aviation to be near zero-carbon by mid-century.

Agriculture

The CCC has said that emissions from agriculture need to be reduced by 30% by 2035. In order to achieve this people would need to eat 20% less meat and dairy on average, more land would need to be used for trees and restored peatland and shifted from agricultural use and there would need to be less food waste. The government has yet to publish its food strategy.

Trees

The role trees play in removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere is very important. The government does have an ambitious plan to plant 30,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025. Though the government wants to treble planting, in England during this parliament it has a long way to go to meet this target.

Hydrogen

Hydrogen is a low-carbon fuel that could be used for transport, heating, power generation or energy storage and the government would like to have a capacity of 5GW of hydrogen production by 2030. However, it’s early days for this industry and in fact there is almost no low-carbon production of hydrogen in the UK or globally now. The industry will need “rapid and significant scale-up” in the coming years if it is to be part of the solution. The government is promising a decision on the role of hydrogen in heating by 2026.

Carbon Capture and Storage

The government is highly reliant on new technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, to allow the continued use of fossil fuels without releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The ability to capture carbon and store it is essential for the UK to reach net zero by 2050. The government is planning to capture and store between 20 and 30 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2030. The technology is still emerging and is very expensive. A project has been planned for North-East Scotland that can extract as much CO2 from the air as 40 million trees can. Two areas have also been chosen to have priority access to government funding for carbon capture projects. They are the Hynet Cluster covering the North-West of England and North Wales, and the East Coast Cluster in the Humber and Teesside. North-east Scotland will be the reserve cluster. Even if the government’s target is met, it will account for less than 3% of current emissions which is far short of the emissions cut required this decade.

Industry

The government has said that it will cut emissions from manufacturing by about two-thirds before 2035. Carbon capture and hydrogen will both play a big role, but substantial progress will be needed in these technologies. The government is also planning to cap the amount of emissions allowed by individual sectors each year, which will reduce gradually. It’s not clear how the scheme will prevent production and emissions shifting to other countries. The CCC has also advised the government that all gas-fired power stations where carbon is emitted and not captured should be phased out by 2035.

Over the past 12 months the government has released several strategies to reduce emissions in key sectors, including transport, industry and hydrogen production. Apart from phasing out petrol and diesel cars in 2030 there have been no new policies that would significantly reduce emissions announced or enacted. Given the limited timeframe between now and 2030, substantially more urgent action is needed if the UK is to live up to its mantle as climate leader.

The current COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow is believed to be crucial for climate change to be brought under control.  Almost 200 countries are being asked for their plans to cut emissions, and it could lead to big changes in our day-to-day life.

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