What does the UK need to do to make a realistic attempt at ‘net-zero’?

As the first ever ‘Green Great Britain’ week is launched, the Government is now seeking advice from the Committee on Climate Change on how the UK can achieve ‘net-zero’ greenhouse gas emissions from across the economy. This means a balance between the emission of greenhouse gases and their removal from the atmosphere, achieved through either natural processes or removal technologies. But why is net-zero on the table and what would it take to achieve it?

The UK needs to align its targets with the Paris Agreement and aim for 1.5°C

The Government has been under pressure to set a net-zero target to align the UK’s current goals with the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. In order to keep the rise in global mean temperatures ‘well below 2°C’ above pre-industrial levels and to try to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the Paris Agreement commits to net-zero emissions globally in the second half of this century. In the UK a net-zero target would complement or replace the country’s current long-term emission reduction target – set out in the Climate Change Act of 2008 – of at least 80% by 2050 relative to 1990.

The 1.5°C global target is receiving heightened attention following the publication last week of the special report on 1.5°C by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC concludes that a 1.5°C target substantially reduces the climate risks to the planet compared with 2°C – but to have a realistic chance of meeting 1.5°C, global emissions would have had to reach net-zero already by 2050. This evidence should serve as further impetus to the UK Government to commit to net-zero, sooner rather than later.

Consensus is building in the UK on net-zero

Britain’s climate change minister, Claire Perry, announced the Government’s intention to explore a net-zero target for the UK back in the spring. Since then, 132 members of parliament and 51 peers from all major parties have called on the Prime Minister to commit to net-zero by 2050.

This degree of consensus is reminiscent of the overwhelming cross-party support for the Climate Change Act, passed 10 years ago. And like 10 years ago, the Opposition (now Labour, then the Conservatives) is pushing the Government to take a more progressive stance.

If the target is set, the UK would join Norway and Sweden, which have legislated net-zero or near-net-zero targets. New Zealand, Iceland and California are among jurisdictions that have announced, but not yet enacted, net-zero targets.

Net-zero is possible with commitments in three areas

The Government’s independent adviser, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), will be reviewing the scientific logic, technical feasibility and socioeconomic consequences of a net-zero commitment with its customary rigour. The Committee has already spelt out what a realistic attempt at net-zero would require, in its review of the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy, published in January 2018.

Any announcement on net-zero will have to be combined with credible commitments from the Government on each of these requirements.

Requirement 1: Near-perfect delivery on existing decarbonisation plans

This means staying the course on decarbonisation of the power sector and surface transport, and a much more determined effort on difficult emission sources like buildings, industry and agriculture. The UK is currently not on track to meet its statutory carbon targets for the mid-2020s and early-2030s – the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. Stronger policies are needed.

Requirement 2: Significant progress on carbon capture and storage (CCS)

The UK has a dreadful record on CCS, characterised by damaging policy reversals and a lack of long-term vision. CCS may no longer be essential in the power sector, where the costs of other technologies have fallen dramatically, but it is vital to the decarbonisation of industry. CCS will also be critical if the Government opts for hydrogen as the best way to decarbonise heating systems. A hydrogen pilot is currently underway in Leeds.

Requirement 3: Development of viable greenhouse gas removal (GGR) techniques

Virtually all 1.5°C scenarios require the global deployment of ‘negative emissions’ technology to offset residual emissions from hard-to-decarbonise activities. Some of these techniques are known, such as the combination of bioenergy with CCS, but most options, like direct air capture, are still at the drawing-board stage. Forestation should play a role and would have significant environmental benefits, but could probably not be deployed at the required scale in the UK.

International coordination is certainly needed – but should the target be domestic?

Making CCS and GGR happen will need international coordination and close collaboration with the private sector. This cries out for global leadership, which the UK as an international climate leader could be well-placed to provide. A range of interventions will be required. On the supply side, they involve support for research, development and demonstration, perhaps through schemes like Mission Innovation. On the demand side, the challenge is to create a commercially attractive market, taking inspiration perhaps from the market-shaping initiatives that were pioneered in the deployment of medicines to low-income countries.

The CCC will also have to advise whether the net-zero target should be achieved domestically, or whether residual UK emissions may be offset by emission cuts in other countries. Sweden’s inspiring net-zero target, for example, allows the use of international offsets for up to 20% of emissions.

The Government and the CCC have always taken the view that the UK should meet its emissions targets domestically. This is the right call. It means that there is an unambiguous policy focus on emission reductions within the country, and the UK’s contribution to international climate finance – worth £5.8 billion between 2016 and 2021 – is not tainted by conditionality about the rights to emissions credits.

However, it may be wise not to rule out international cooperation in reaching net-zero. It is impossible to predict whether the UK will have a comparative advantage in negative emissions technology. So a distinction may have to be made between helping other countries reduce their emissions, through unconditional climate finance, and finding the best way, globally, of producing the negative emissions that a 1.5°C scenario requires. Depending on what that solution is, the UK may have to import negative emissions from the places best suited to produce them.

A new target without new policies would be meaningless

The IPCC in its 1.5°C report makes a compelling case for a global net-zero target by 2050 and politicians in the House of Commons appear to support this. But the CCC should draw its own conclusions on what is appropriate for the UK. For the credibility of its climate change framework, the UK needs a long-term target that is not just stretching but also achievable. This means new policy commitments. Tightening the target is meaningless if the UK remains off track to meet its current commitments.

Sam Fankhauser is Director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, and Director of the ESRC-funded Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP), both at the London School of Economics.