Overview of change

In 2019, the UK legislated the 2050 net zero greenhouse gas emissions target. Its increased ambition (rising from a prior 80% reduction goal), as well as the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC’s) recent Sixth Carbon Budget advice,1 have led to increasing public, private and government focus on medium to long-term climate goals,2,3 as well as commentary around the scale, feasibility and timing of meeting net zero. A range of modelling evidence illustrates that there are multiple ‘pathways’ to net zero.1,4,5 Pathways tend to differ in the extent to which they focus, to a greater or lesser extent, on the use of large-scale technology – particularly those for greenhouse gas removals (GGR), carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) and hydrogen6 – or on greater levels of consumer engagement leading to behaviour change, demand reduction (such as of travel and material consumption) and electrification of energy end-uses. These pathways are not mutually exclusive, not least because some sectors like agriculture are particularly challenging to reduce emissions in entirely, and these ‘residual’ emissions will need to be offset by GGR (which could itself require CCUS) regardless of the amount of behavioural change and demand reduction that occurs. However, at the extremes of the pathways there are large implicit differences in the changes to daily lives (such as changes to diet, travel and home heating),1,7,8 the structure of the economy and a much wider range of systems.

In addition to the potential changes arising from the existing target, there is related but more fundamental commentary on the 2050 date for the UK. Achieving net zero by 2050 will be highly challenging and, although existing policy does not put the UK on track to meet interim milestones,9,10 there is emerging consensus across the private sector and civil society on the importance of climate mitigation.11 There is also a growing number of industry organisations outside of the immediate energy and climate space that are now aligning their operations with net zero by 2050.12,13 However, several groups argue that the 2050 date would need to be brought forward to make the UK’s targets compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5°C under a stricter interpretation of ‘equity’ assumptions.14-[i]16 Globally, current Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) emissions reduction pledges emitted by all nations under the Paris Agreement fail to reach even the lower end of the Agreement’s ambition.17,18 Recent CCC modelling has demonstrated a route to UK net zero by the early 2040s for the first time, under a scenario in which both innovation and public appetite for behaviour change all develop faster than expected.1

Challenges and opportunities

Some have cautioned against over-relying on ‘breakthrough’ technologies for future emissions reductions,19 which they argue are unproven at scale and risk missing targets if they fail to develop.20 Such groups often advocate technologies that are proven at scale, focusing on the continuing cost declines in renewables production (particularly offshore wind) that has greatly expanded output,21-24 as well as new developments in electricity storage,25 interconnection26 and other forms of flexibility. Sales of electric vehicles are growing and have outperformed expectations during the pandemic,27,28 though continued growth is dependent on government support (for example for charging infrastructure).29 However, a wholesale replacement of privately owned internal combustion engine cars with electric vehicles would present challenges in the absence of behavioural change.30

Recent progress in larger technology solutions and analysis of future emissions reductions suggest that current early-stage technologies will have an important role in longer-term emissions reduction.31 The level of research into low-carbon hydrogen production,32-34 and GGR technologies,35,36 is increasing, though deployment of these technologies in commercial settings is still at an early stage. Developments in hydrogen in applications such as transport and energy storage are also developing quickly,37 and could be valuable for ‘filling the gaps’ in the energy system where electrification is challenging.38 There are challenges in increasing the share of nuclear power, given economic issues and project delays, though new nuclear technologies could help provide the electricity required in the medium-to very-long-term.39,40

Other challenges include the social equity considerations associated with the net zero transition (such as the distribution of costs and the rights of those currently working in high-carbon industries);41 and the degree to which incumbent interests (such as automobile manufacturers and oil and gas industry) align with the transition.42,43 In addition, there are many well-understood co-benefits associated with climate change mitigation, such as public health benefits from improved air quality and warmer homes.44

Key Unknowns

  • Whether the rate at which cost reductions witnessed in wind and solar power can be replicated in new, unproven technology that is deployed in fewer but larger units.
  • The extent to which policy-makers are able to engage members of the public with the net zero transition and whether the public are willing to make changes to lifestyles as a result of this engagement or wider factors such as financial considerations or cultural change.45
  • Whether a wide range of factors across all of the above will emerge to facilitate an earlier, or later, net zero date.

Key Questions for Parliament

  • Can the UK make use of its science and technology base to gain an early advantage in developing technology areas, and how can government departments that have not historically considered climate mitigation coordinate efforts across a range of strategic policy, infrastructure and spending decisions?
  • What are the preferences of an informed and considered public are on specific technologies, policy developments or other measures for reaching net zero, and how can policy-makers best engage the public?45

Likelihood and Impact

High likelihood and high impact, with impacts arising immediately and persisting for several decades.

Research for Parliament 2021

Experts have helped us identify 30 areas of change to help the UK Parliament prepare for the future.

References

  1. Climate Change Committee (2020). The Sixth Carbon Budget: The UK’s Path to Net Zero.
  2. Jolly, J. (2020). Investor group makes net-zero carbon pledge to tackle climate crisis. The Guardian.
  3. Murray, J., and Gockelen-Kozlowski (2020). Global net-zero commitments double in less than a year. GreenBiz.
  4. National Grid ESO (2020). Future Energy Scenarios 2020.
  5. IPCC (2018). Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5C.
  6. Evans, S., (2020). In-depth: Hydrogen ‘required’ to meet UK net-zero goal, says National Grid. Carbon Brief.
  7. Energy Systems Catapult (2019). Net Zero: Living Carbon Free.
  8. Hook, A., et al (2020). A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking. IoPScience.
  9. Institute for Government (2020). Net zero: How government can meet its climate change target.
  10. HMG (2020). Energy White Paper: Powering our Net Zero Future.
  11. The Royal Academy Future of the Corporation (2019). Principles for Purposeful Business.
  12. Net Zero Corporate Pledges [online]. Accessed 15/12/20.
  13. Rathi (2020). Apple’s Climate Plan is Even More Interesting Than It Appears. Bloomberg Quint.
  14. Bullock, S. (2019). Net-zero target by 2050? We can do better than that. Policy@Manchester Blogs: Cities and Environment.
  15. ECIU (2018). Net zero: why?
  16. Anderson, K., et al (2020). A factor of two: how the mitigation plans of ‘climate progressive’ nations fall far short of Paris-compliant pathways. Climate Policy, vol.20 (10).
  17. UN Environment Programme (2020). Emissions Gap Report 2020.
  18. Roelfsema, M., et al (2020). Taking stock of national climate policies to evaluate implementation of the Paris Agreement. Nature Communications, vol.11.
  19. Allwood, J.M., et. al. (2019). Absolute Zero: Delivering the UK’s climate change commitment with incremental changes to today’s technologies.
  20. McLaren, D., et al (2019). Beyond “Net-Zero”: A Case for Separate Targets for Emissions Reduction and Negative Emissions. Frontiers in Climate, vol. 1.
  21. Hornigold, T. (2017). The Tantalizing Dream of Blanketing the Sahara in Solar Panels. SingularityHub.
  22. Parnell, J. (2020). World’s Largest Solar Project Will Also Be Its Cheapest. GreenTechMedia.
  23. Naam, R (2020). Solar’s Future is Insanely Cheap.
  24. Dunning, H. (2020). Offshore wind power now so cheap it could pay money back to consumers. Imperial College London news.
  25. Jha, S., et al (2020). Design and synthesis of high performance flexible and green supercapacitors made of manganese‐dioxide‐decorated alkali lignin. Energy Storage, vol.2 (5).
  26. European MSP Platform [online] The North Seas Countries’ Offshore Grid Initiative (NSCOGI). Accessed 16/12/2020.
  27. Mühlon, F. (2020). Here’s how electric vehicles can keep us on the road to Paris. World Economic Forum.
  28. Gorner, M., and Paoli, L. (2021). How global electric car sales defied Covid-19 in 2020. IEA.
  29. Reiner, C., et al (2020). Driving and accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles in the UK. The Behavioural Insights Team, TRL.
  30. Morgan, J. (2020). Electric cars won’t save us if the numbers don’t add up. The Conversation.
  31. IEA (2020). Clean Energy Innovation.
  32. HMG [online]. Low Carbon Hydrogen Supply Competition. Accessed 22/03/21
  33. HMG [online] Policy paper: The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution (HTML version). Accessed 22/03/21.
  34. Hook, L. (2020). Solar provides fertile ground for ‘green’ hydrogen chemical plant.
  35. Greenhouse Gas Removal Research Programme [online]. Science Components. Accessed 22/03/21
  36. Collins, L. (2020). World’s first carbon-negative hydrogen project gets green light. Recharge News.
  37. McGrath, M. (2020). Climate change: ‘Bath sponge’ breakthrough could boost cleaner cars. BBC News.
  38. The Economist (2020). After many false starts, hydrogen power might now bear fruit.
  39. Cho, A. (2020). Smaller, cheaper reactor aims to revive nuclear industry, but design problems raise safety concerns. Science.
  40. Mallonee, L. (2020). Fusion Energy Gets Ready to Shine – Finally. Wired.
  41. Scottish Government (2020). Just Transitions: a comparative perspective.
  42. Ward, B (2020). Oil and gas industry must own its transition to net zero emissions. LSE Commentary.
  43. Lowes, R., Woodman, B., Speirs, J. (2020). Heating in Great Britain: An incumbent discourse coalition resists an electrifying future. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transformation, vol.37 pp.1-17.
  44. Jennings, N., Fecht, D., De Matteis, S. (2019). Co-benefits of climate change mitigation in the UK: What issues are the UK public concerned about and how can action on climate change help to address them? Grantham Institute Briefing paper No 31.
  45. Pallett, H., Chilvers, J., and Hargreaves, T. (2019). Mapping participation: A systematic analysis of diverse public participation in the UK energy system. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 2(3), 590-616.

Photo by Luke Thornton on Unsplash

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