Every fraction of a degree matters when it comes to climate change; particularly to the most vulnerable people around the world, but also to habitats such as coral reefs. Heightened awareness of the danger has spurred a remarkable upsurge in public protests and driven the issue right up the political agenda. Not since 2005 – when my colleagues and I launched the Big Ask Campaign that led to the Climate Change Act – has there been such an opportunity for decisive action.
This is the context for assessing the Committee on Climate Change’s recent report on the UK’s transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions. The Committee has done an impressive job in bringing together the evidence and has identified what it considers to be the UK’s fair share of global emissions reductions to deliver the Paris Agreement. But it admits it adopted a ‘conservative approach’.
Now is not the time for a conservative approach. Now is the time for bold actions. Faster, deeper and fairer emission cuts are possible, and are what we need to prevent the worst effects of catastrophic climate change.
Faster emissions cuts
The UK can make faster cuts to emissions from transport, home heating and speed up the transition to renewable energy.
The CCC reiterated that the government’s cut-off date for selling new petrol and diesel cars, vans and motorcycles should be brought forward. It additionally suggested that a date of 2050 should be set after which these vehicles could no longer be used on the road. This additional date is required because although the average lifespan of a car is 15 years, many cars are used for up to 20 years. A cut-off date for new sales of 2030 is definitely feasible. An earlier 2045 date to ban all petrol and diesel vehicles from being on the road should be set, including extending it to cover most if not all HGVs.
Heat pumps have been identified as the primary technology for the future of home heating, which will be a blow to those in the gas industry championing hydrogen from natural gas as a silver bullet. The CCC suggest 10 million of these should be fitted by 2035. But with a whopping 1.6 million gas boilers installed every year, the pace of this seems almost leisurely. We should be aiming to fit an average of at least one million heat pumps per year over the next 20 years.
Faster buildout of renewable energy: The CCC calls for around 9GW of additional renewable energy per year over the next 15 years. The average build rate of renewable energy between 2012 and 2017 was 7.7GW. But a much faster transition to EVs and heat pumps would require a faster build of renewable power. We should really be aiming for around 14GW of new capacity a year. This is clearly a step-change from historic rates, but the foundations have been laid with the remarkable progress the industry has made over the last decade, particularly offshore wind. It’s also very easy to spot large expanses of south-facing roof space which is ideal for significantly increasing solar power.
Deeper emissions cuts
As well as faster cuts, the UK can also make deeper cuts in areas such as aviation.
It is now clear that hydrogen has an important role in decarbonising industry, some types of transport (e.g. long-distance HGVs, trains) and in supporting heating (e.g. in the form of hybrid heat-pumps). The CCC recommends that the majority of this hydrogen should be made from natural gas using Steam Methane Reformation coupled with carbon capture & storage (CCS).
This approach will lead to continued greenhouse gas emissions, even if the very high rates of carbon capture the CCC models were achieved. These emissions are unnecessary when hydrogen can be made from water using renewable energy (electrolysis). While this is more expensive it is also zero carbon. Producing all the hydrogen from renewables will require an addition 305 TWh of electricity according to the CCC.
The CCC has also maintained its existing recommendation on aviation growth – 60 percent greater demand than 2005 by 2050, equal to around 30 MtCO2 – although to its credit it did model deeper cuts. Aviation is clearly a political hot potato, particularly Heathrow expansion. In a world of extreme weather, massive biodiversity loss and approaching tipping points in the climate system, surely we should be aiming to lower levels of growth? Heathrow expansion must be rejected, and a frequent flier tax introduced to achieve these deeper cuts in emissions.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the CCC’s indicative energy mix for electricity production also includes a significant amount of natural gas with CCS for electricity production. A diverse mix of renewable energy could produce all the electricity needed, including producing hydrogen as an energy store for use in electricity production in periods of low wind or sun, as well as for use with hybrid heat pumps. We don’t need natural gas for electricity production for decades to come.
A renewables-only scenario would need a much faster and larger increase in deployment of renewables and much greater amounts of electricity. It may cost more, but it means we would be doing our bit to limit global warming as much as possible. The UK is blessed with a huge potential for renewable energy, particularly as floating offshore wind is developed. We need to make the most of this for environmental and economic grounds.
A fairer share of cuts
As the home of the industrial revolution, the UK is responsible for a large proportion of historic emissions. It is only right therefore, that we do more to clean up the mess we helped create. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified five different approaches for sharing out the global carbon budget. The CCC’s choice of net zero greenhouse gases by 2050 maps most closely to the ‘capability’ approach. This is an approach that means that countries with high GDP per capita have greater emissions reductions targets than poorer countries. While we congratulate the CCC for considering equity they should have used a most equitable approach. More equitable approaches would require the UK to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero well before 2050.
The CCC was not asked to identify how the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions could be cut as fast and as deep as possible. If they were, they may not have relied so much on the extraction and use of natural gas in electricity and hydrogen production, they would have been tougher on aviation, and they would have required a faster shift to energy efficient homes heated by heat pumps.
A review of the CCC’s evidence base suggests not only that the net zero date could be achieved earlier but that faster and deeper emissions cuts could be achieved on the pathway to net zero as well. This is important because, as Friends of the Earth repeatedly stated during our campaign for the Climate Change Act, it’s the cumulative emissions that matter most.