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UK Government Committee Backs Net-Zero Climate Goal for 2050

May 10, 2019


The U.K.‘s Committee on Climate Change said the country should achieve net-zero carbon emissions by midcentury, but red tape is holding back renewables development.

Renewable energy players cheered a government-sponsored report recommending the U.K. set a date of 2050 for achieving net-zero carbon emissions.

“This is the level of ambition and leadership that is needed from policymakers,” said Andy Bradley, director at Edinburgh-based consultancy Delta Energy and Environment, on recommendations made by the U.K. Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

The CCC’s report, published seven days after a series of high-profile London protests by the activist group Extinction Rebellion, said it is “technically feasible by 2050 but highly challenging” for the U.K. to end its contribution to global warming.

“Ten years after the Climate Change Act became law, now is the right moment to set a more ambitious goal,” said the CCC in a statement.

“Achieving a net-zero target by the middle of the century is in line with the U.K.’s commitment under the Paris Agreement, the pact which the U.K. and the rest of the world signed in 2015 to curb dramatically the polluting gases that cause climate change.”

Britain’s net-zero target is among the world’s most ambitious. To achieve it, the CCC recommends upping Britain’s current 2050 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target, which stands at 80 percent of 1990 levels, to 96 percent.

Further reductions would be achieved through what the CCC said were speculative options, such as cutting meat consumption 20 percent, turning 15 percent of farmland into forests and biofuel plantations, and deploying carbon capture and storage (CCS) at scale.

The transport and aviation challenges

One of the biggest hurdles facing the U.K.’s transition to net-zero emissions is in transport. U.K. emissions from transport have increased by 6 percent since 2013 and are now 4 percent higher than in 1990, the CCC noted.

For road transport, the CCC report recommended a wholesale move to electric drivetrains.

However, said Aris Karcanias, co-lead of the global clean energy practice at FTI Consulting, “to support the switch to electric vehicles we must make it economically attractive to invest in charging solutions and infrastructure.”

At present, charging stations are often underutilized and software is not harmonized across platforms, he said. Consequently, infrastructure may not necessarily get deployed where it is needed to achieve cost parity and broader market adoption.

When it comes to aviation, meanwhile, the CCC recognized that zero-carbon flight would likely be unachievable by 2050, at least on long-haul routes.

By introducing hybrid-electric planes for short-haul flights from 2040 and cutting the design speed of aircraft, the Committee calculated U.K. aviation emissions could be reduced from 75 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2017 to around 55 megatons by 2050.

These emissions would have to be offset by carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere, for instance through afforestation and carbon capture and storage. Compared to these challenges, the issues facing the electrical system seem relatively straightforward.

U.K. emissions from electricity generation have fallen by 50 percent since 2013 and 64 percent since 1990, the report said, mainly due to reductions in coal use as energy demand has fallen and the supply from renewables has increased.

Nevertheless, experts are divided on what measures could be most effective in achieving full decarbonization of the electricity system.

Red tape for cheapest renewable source

One potential stumbling block is that onshore wind, which remains the cheapest source of renewable energy in the U.K., faces a subsidy block that as of January had halted 794 projects.

“The red tape slowing onshore renewable development must be removed,” said Matthew Clayton, managing director of clean energy investment company Thrive Renewables.

“We have innovative technology that can provide competitively priced power, create jobs and deliver decarbonization, and yet the planning framework is preventing sector growth.”

Sarah Merrick, founder and CEO of energy cooperative Ripple Energy, also advocates freeing up onshore wind development. “New onshore wind farms need to be able to get planning consent so we can phase out fossil fuels,” she said. “It’s all totally doable.”

The U.K. is the world’s leading market for offshore wind, where much of the investment in the country’s renewable energy infrastructure has shifted in recent years.

Elsewhere, though, Mark Hollands, strategy director at solar developer BSR Energy, said “the headline change necessary is the introduction of a carbon tax.”

At present the U.K. is party to the European Union Emissions Trading System, and the British government last October proposed replacing it with a Carbon Emissions Tax in April if the country left Europe without a deal. 

With Brexit talks still in progress, the CCC report simply stated that border tariff adjustments should be considered as the U.K. negotiates new trade deals outside the Union.

Bradley, at Delta Energy and Environment, said the big challenge for U.K. energy markets could be decarbonizing heat. “For heat, the journey to zero carbon is still very much unknown,” he said. “Electrification, hydrogen, biomethane and district heating all have a role to play.”

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