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The Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) report, entitled Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming, recommends that the UK should legislate “as soon as possible” to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero by 2050 at the latest. If adopted, this would be much more ambitious than the UK’s current target of an 80% cut in GHG emissions by 2050. And this is in the wake of the House of Commons being the first parliament in the world to pass a motion declaring an ‘environment and climate emergency’.

The CCC recommends different targets for Scotland and Wales. According to the report, Scotland should aim for a more ambitious net zero GHG target by 2045, due its greater relative capacity to remove emissions, through afforestation and the restoration of damaged peat. Wales, however, is recommended to adopt a slightly less ambitious goal of achieving a 95% reduction in GHG emissions when compared to 1990 levels by 2050 due to the nation’s lower potential for carbon dioxide (CO2) storage and its high agricultural emissions relative to the other nations of the UK.

Economic implications

Adopting a legal, net zero target in the current Government will come at a “manageable” cost: forecast to be 1 – 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) between now and 2050, which was actually the “accepted” forecast costs when the UK’s existing target of 80% reduction of emissions by 2050 was passed in 2008. This 1-2% of GDP is the amount that would need to be invested in abatement measures to generate the transition to a net-zero economy by 2050.

In actual fact, according to the CCC’s most recent estimate, the cost of meeting our current GHG target is likely to be less economically costly than originally thought: at below 1% of GDP. This is due to recent reductions in the cost of low-carbon technologies, such as renewables and batteries for electric cars. Indeed, specific costs are “unknowable with any precision”, as the CCC states, as they fundamentally depend on uncertain outcomes like the realised damages from long-term climate change and the trajectories of cost reduction of low-carbon technologies.

Yet, the CCC reaffirm in their report, as they have done in the past, that accepting these costs is “preferable to inaction given the range of risks from unchecked climate change globally”. Moreover, there are many benefits generated from a reduction in GHG emissions, termed ‘co-benefits’, such as lower air pollution and increased biodiversity. The CCC’s estimates, based on HM Treasury’s Green Book guidance, suggest these ‘co-benefits’ may even fully offset the estimated resource costs of net zero.

The CCC suggest that achieving the new target will require deep decarbonisation in nine economic sectors. Each economic sector’s options to reduce emissions are grouped by their feasibility as ‘core’, ‘further ambition’ and ‘speculative’. Each economic sector has an estimated GHG reduction as a percentage of 1990 levels attached to them – being 77%, 96% and 100% GHG reductions by 2050 respectively. Figure 1 below details the estimated resource costs per sector of meeting the different emissions pathways.

Figure 1: Relative costs of reaching different emissions pathways for the nine economic sectors

Source: Carbon Brief, “In-depth: The UK should reach ‘net-zero’ climate goal by 2050, says CCC”, https://www.carbonbrief.org/in-depth-the-uk-should-reach-net-zero-climate-goal-by-2050-says-ccc (2019); graphic produced for Carbon Brief by the CCC.  

As Figure 1 shows, the buildings sector sees the highest resource cost requirements due to the estimated high costs of installing energy efficiency and low-carbon electricity and heating systems, whilst transport actually sees a negative cost estimate due to electric vehicles being forecast to have lower purchase and lifetime costs than fossil fuel run vehicles in around a decade.

Technological feasibility

The CCC argues that a net-zero emissions target is achievable by the middle of this century given the current level of, future development of, and cost reduction in, low-carbon technologies. Notably, a shift to electrification across economic sectors will double the demand for electricity, requiring a quadrupling of the supply of power from low-carbon sources to keep GHG emissions down in the power sector.   

Admittedly, some of the technological options are very nascent and uncertain – especially in the field of hydrogen-using technologies and carbon capture and storage (CCS). For hydrogen, this is due to no large-scale trials being run yet for its use in decarbonising the UK’s heating systems, alongside a more general under-investment in using hydrogen as a fuel in vehicles and buildings. For hydrogen to live up to the role it has been ascribed in the CCC’s report, much more will need to be produced through “reforming” (a process of extracting hydrogen from natural gas), whilst investing in CCS technologies to reduce emissions. For CCS, the CCC states it is a “necessity not an option” to utilise such technologies to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Measures that reduce CO2 emittance are important, but as some sectors of the economy will always produce at least some CO2, namely industry, net zero is only achievable through offsetting this surplus via CCS.

The need for extra policy support

Whilst some of the nine economic sectors have experienced significant reductions in GHG emissions, some require significant policy support to accelerate reductions. The CCC specifically name two sectors where progress “has been too slow”: the buildings sector and the agriculture sector.

As Figure 1 showed, the buildings sector will require the most investment. GHG emissions from buildings (residential and non-residential) accounted for 17% of UK GHG emissions in 2017. The CCC argues for increased improvements in energy efficiency alongside a transition to hydrogen and electricity use in homes.

Happily, the latest April 2019 stats show that, of the Government’s target for one million homes to have at least one energy efficiency upgrade by April 2020, 852,000 homes have had at least one upgrade to date. And the Government clearly intends go further, through the Future Homes Standard and its introduction of a low-carbon gas obligation on gas suppliers – as recommended in Bright Blue’s recent report on decarbonising the gas network.

But more needs to deeply decarbonise the buildings sector. While the Future Homes Standard will mean new houses no longer have gas boilers and are thus less dependent on fossil fuels, it does not deal with the existing majority stock of houses that are still dependent on fossil fuels for heating. One of the potential ways to reduce GHG emissions from this existing stock is through ‘Help to Improve’ loans and a new ‘Help to Improve’ ISA, as Bright Blue has previously recommended. These would be a sister policy to the ‘Help to Buy’ schemes, and are needed after the failure of the Green Deal to incentivise much growth in the installation of home energy efficiency measures.

The agricultural sector, too, requires greater support from the Government to deeply reduce GHG emissions. Farming remains one of the largest emitting sectors at 9% of total UK GHG emissions in 2017.

The CCC’s report argues that agricultural practices will need to have an increased emphasis on environmental benefits to make net zero emissions by 2050 a reality. Such activities include absorbing GHGs from the atmosphere through, for example, carbon sequestration and biomass growth. Indeed, the CCC suggest around a fifth of land needs to be freed up for such activities. Increasing efficiencies in farming practices is needed to do this through farming using less land – which can be achieved through better soil and livestock management.

A new market-based commissioning scheme for farming subsidies could provide the policy support needed to facilitate the CCC’s recommendations in the agricultural sector, as recommended in our recent report, A greener, more pleasant land. This would replace the Common Agricultural Policy’s system of distributing subsidies based on how much land a farmer owns with a system that rewards farmers, land managers and landowners based on the amount of ecosystem services they provide.

The public mandate for a net-zero emissions target is strong. Recent polling from Bright Blue’s report, Hotting up, which was in fact cited in the CCC report, shows that 64% of the UK public are in favour of reducing emissions to net zero in the next few decades. There is thus a strong political case for the legal adoption of a net zero GHG target by 2050 at the latest. And whilst the UK has made great strides in reducing its carbon emissions, falling 44% from the 1990 baseline level and 3% in 2018, there is always more to be done. It will be a challenge, requiring new government incentives and investment, but there is a sound economic, technological and political case to introduce this net zero target by 2050 at the very latest. The Prime Minister should be bold and take this opportunity to continue this Conservative Government’s good track record on environmental policy.   

William Nicolle is a Researcher at Bright Blue.