For years, ominous environmental warnings have been set comfortably into the distant future. Today’s wakeup call is that we must reach net-zero carbon — and not just an 80% emissions cut — by 2050, say Government advisors, especially if we want to avoid a mass extinction of species. Jon Herbert reports.

Until early May, calls for overall net-zero UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions — with added demands from climate campaigners for an urgent 2025 deadline — were officially regarded as low-carbon pie in the sky. Substantial but incomplete reductions by 2050 were considered the only viable option.

The mood music has changed swiftly. The UK and EU have been quick to roll out more ambitious plans that will involve fundamental lifestyle changes for everyone and all businesses. Leading the charge is the Government’s environmental advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

Faster change at the same cost

The UK’s current legally-binding GHG reduction goal of 80% over a 1990 baseline set by the Climate Change Act 2008 should be upgraded to 100%, the CCC now says. However, the new target can be reached with no overall increase in the cost of 1–2% of GDP each year until 2050.

If other countries follow suit, there is a 50:50 chance of keeping world surface temperatures down to 1.5°C by 2100, the generally acknowledged threshold for dangerous climate change.

The CCC adds that the goal of ending petrol and diesel vehicle sales by 2040 is too tame. Electric vehicles (EVs), or hydrogen-powered models, could dominate the market by 2030 with large fuel, running and service cost savings, and may actually be cheaper than fossil-fuel models by 2024-2025.

In addition, a complete industrial, domestic and transport sector sustainable transition will have to be supported by a 400% increase in renewable energy supplies by 2050.

Not too fast and not too slow

The CCC warns that going for a net-zero carbon economy before 2050 would be "very risky" for social and economic reasons; this is the cut-off date for global temperature increases to be limited to a relatively safe level, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Success will come at a price, with substantial changes in attitude, commitment, behaviour and the use of old and new technologies. The bonus, in addition to survival in a warming world, will be a valuable green competitive-edge for the UK as a low-carbon leader in global markets.

Meanwhile, there are other challenges. Having cut carbon relatively well compared to other nations, the UK is currently at risk of missing its fourth and fifth carbon budgets by 139 million and 245 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e) respectively, according to the latest BEIS forecast.

The overall message is that old-fashioned notions of continuous growth and wealth-creation are now for the birds. Carbon’s long-promised global warming threat could be coming home to roost.

Space station to count global carbon

One symbol of new technology is NASA’s second carbon tracker — OCO-2 (Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2) — now in orbit onboard the International Space Station. Working with other OCOs, it will extend CO2 trackingthrough the atmosphere.

Other major innovations will be needed if the CCC’s recommendations are accepted. One will be carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, often described as carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), which MPs on the BEIS Committee say has been delayed by 15-years of “turbulent” government policy. They want much more clarity and rapid development funding.

At the other end of the scale, 20,000 hectares of land annually will need “rewilding” with the planting of millions of new trees.

On a personal level, diets must change too; red meat production creates high volumes of the GHG methane; the belching of ruminating animals adds up to some 9.5% of all greenhouse gases. There also needs to be a substantial switch from gas-fired boilers to sustainable alternatives.

Aviation generates high GHG levels and growth rates are likely to be scaled back. Technical fixes, more efficient flight management, plus less flying — with higher taxes — are potential remedies.

Politics and business

There have been other more immediate developments. The Scottish and Welsh governments have both declared a “climate emergency”. Westminster MPs passed a similar non-binding motion.

In parallel, Extinction Rebellion’s direct action on London streets for ten days culminated in a meeting with Mr Gove, and disappointment that, unlike a majority of MPs, he did not support the climate emergency motion tabled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

An additional challenge came from Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, who told MPs that UK GHG reduction figures of some 43% only covered “terrestrial emissions”. With aviation, shipping and embedded carbon in imports added, the true reduction was closer to 10%, she said. BEIS responded that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Kyoto Protocol are followed.

Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, with French counterpart, François Villeroy de Galhau, have warned that companies that don’t face up to dangers to the global economy “will fail to exist”. Specifically, they stated that: "Carbon emissions have to decline by 45% from 2010 levels over the next decade in order to reach net zero by 2050. This requires a massive reallocation of capital”.

Why net-zero now?

Two factors have pushed carbon rapidly to the top of the public, business and political agenda. One is a huge fall in renewable energy costs, backed by government policies. The other is popular support triggered by BBC climate documentaries and environmental campaigns.

However, there could be at least two restrictions. One is the speed at which new EV charging points can be installed. Mary Creagh, Environment Audit Committee Chair, says market forces are insufficient and government regulation will be needed to improve installation rates radically. The Treasury may decide to subsidise home charging points as a more economical option than a comprehensive public network; motorway charging is generally thought to be on track. The wider problem could be in deep rural communities. Some older cars will still be on the road after 2050.

The other strategic problem could be a worldwide shortage of the hard-to-find cobalt needed to manufacture EV batteries. Even so, AA president, Edmund King, says that if resources can be found, EVs could be more economical in the late 2020s. On balance, he considers a 2040 target that will challenge industry and governments to be about right.

EU on board

In a joint statement, France, Belgium, Denmark, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden say the EU must reach net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 "at the latest", adding that this can "go hand in hand with prosperity". They cite "profound implications for the future of humanity" with "the heat waves and scorching fires of last summer". Chancellor Merkel added Germany to the list later.

Meanwhile, the UN warns in a 1,800 page global assessment of the state of nature compiled by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) that one million of the earth’s estimated eight million species could be lost due to human actions.

Summary

The Government’s environmental advisor, the Committee on Climate Change, has recommended that the Government amends the present legally-binding UK greenhouse gas reduction target from a cut of 80% by 2050 to an overall net-zero ban.

This will have profound business, household and personal implications, mainly in terms of energy use, transport, flying, diet and heating. However, tackling the issues early could create commercial opportunities.

Last reviewed 4 June 2019