Net Zero: This changes (almost) everything

By Richard Black, Director

Published:13 May 2019

The official advice that the Committee on Climate Change recently gave to Government, that the UK should become a ‘net zero nation’ by 2050, will, if adopted, change more than the speed and eventual depth of decarbonisation.

A net zero target changes decision-making qualitatively and quantitatively… in at least five ways.

1. It's the whole economy, stupid

The UK’s existing target, of reducing emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, encourages a significant degree of woolly thinking from both business lobby groups and Government.

Net Zero: This changes (almost) everything

Any business sector or any individual big company can see the remaining 20% and think ‘I’ll have a slice of that’… and plan its business as though it will get it.

The same applies to government departments. ‘That leaves a decent slice for agriculture,’ thinks the Defra official. ‘New airport runways? Sure thing, there’s space for that,’ says the Department for Transport internal briefing document. ‘Steel and cement? No problem,’ sighs the BEIS official just off the phone with the Energy Intensive Users Group.

Well: not any more. A net zero target means decarbonising the whole economy – farming, aviation, steel, housing, chemicals, and everything else, as far as conceivably possible.

Which has two logical consequences.

Firstly, every sector and every government department has to plan on the basis of total decarbonisation. Secondly, if any department plans something that risks maintaining or raising emissions – a new airport runway, for example – there should be a cost-benefit process within government that analyses the additional negative emissions needed to compensate, and takes the costs of that (in financial and land-use terms) into account when making a yes/no decision.

Net zero means the whole economy – no ifs, no buts, no special pleading.

2. Net zero changes the choices

In some cases, the goal of eliminating emissions will lead to different choices than a goal of reducing emissions. In simple terms; if your choice cannot get to zero or very close, it is a poor choice.

Home heating is a great example here.

The net zero move has already persuaded the Scottish Government to U-turn on plan to cut aviation tax. Image: Scottish Government

Without doubt, the easiest and least disruptive way to reduce carbon emissions here is low-carbon gas. We see examples of projects exploring this up and down the country already – inject some biogas into the grid, inject some hydrogen – lower the use of fossil gas, and thereby trim emissions. This approach has some industry lobby groups behind it, notably the companies that own gas pipes: so long as some kind of gas flows through the pipes, they’ll make money.

However… in a net zero world, the question is not ‘will this reduce emissions?’, but ‘can this cut emissions to zero?’

And it is not clear that a nationwide switch to alternative gases could (see the link above). With both biogas and hydrogen there are supply constraints and alternative users clamouring for the product – industry will undoubtedly be using more hydrogen, and we’re starting to see hydrogen trains entering service. The manufacturing processes for these gases also need to be guaranteed zero-carbon.

Unless government is sure these problems can be solved, and sufficient zero-carbon gases available in 2050 and thereafter, then a gas switch, convenient though it would be, cannot be the nationwide choice in a net zero world, where it might have been in an 80% world.

Net zero changes the question about how to decarbonise, thereby leading to different answers.

3. 2050 is a cut-off... which means acting now

Infrastructure changes over reasonably well-understood timeframes.

Net zero means selecting policy options that end emissions, not just reduce them. Image: Green Energy Futures

A domestic boiler is supposed to last for around 15 years. The average car has a slightly shorter lifespan. An industrial production line… well, that depends on the industry, but can be multiple decades. Britain has millions of houses over a century old, and presumably many buildings erected today will last around that long.

If the next iteration of whatever it is – boiler, house, brewery kit, tractor, whatever – will still be around in 2050, it probably makes sense to make it zero-carbon now. That might not be the case for some industrial process where retro-fitting is straightforward; but on the other end of the scale, it obviously makes sense for homes. In fact, without George Osborne’s last-minute whim in 2015, new homes in Britain would already be built to zero-carbon standards (and heating them cheaper).

The alternative of building a high-carbon leaky house now and having to retro-fit insulation and zero-carbon heating in a decade or two’s time is obviously dim by comparison.

Net zero means doing it once and doing it right.

4. There is no long grass for 'difficult' decisions

Running through the Committee on Climate Change’s report like quartz through granite is the importance of getting on with it. For the power sector that means accelerating deployment of known and already cost-competitive technologies. For others it means targeted research and development – and for yet others, plans, decisions, and – probably – spending.

A good example here is carbon capture and storage (CCS). Once thought of as a power sector technology, rapid developments in renewable energy and battery storage now leave it looking very pricey as an electricity generator. However, in some industries, it may be the only feasible route to decarbonisation.

But it seems vanishingly unlikely to happen by itself. Businesses can lower the cost of CO2 transport and storage by working collectively, in a regional hub basis; but that needs government involvement. The state may also have to shoulder the costs and management of storage pretty much in perpetuity, as with nuclear waste.

Therefore, to make CCS work, ministers must within very few years decide what to do and how to do it, and begin implementing. Kicking uncomfortable decisions into the long grass will not cut it. The same is true for companies.

In a net zero world, failing to act quickly and decisively means repenting, expensively, at leisure.

5. 'Net zero nation' - but not 'net zero island'

Assuming ministers accept the Committee’s advice, the UK will be far from being the only nation moving to net zero.

Many countries are on the way to net zero

Within Europe, Sweden, Norway and Denmark are already committed – Iceland too, if you include that within Europe. France, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal are looking at the question; so are the institutions of the European Union, with both the Parliament and Commission arguing for net zero by 2050.

This changes things; because it implies that nations and their businesses will trade progressively different goods and services than they do now. For oil, gas and coal, read wind turbine blades, hydrogen and heat pumps; for consultancy on coal-mining, read consultancy on lithium-mining.

In major industries, adoption of zero-carbon alternatives will come about through international consortia, sharing both experiences and costs. The more nations adopt net zero targets, the more logical it becomes for their governments to co-operate on mechanisms that can help achieve them. They could be mechanisms that develop technology, cooperate on carbon pricing, establish joint regulatory regimes or anything else. Setting a net zero target means becoming eligible to join these 'clubs'.

Net zero targets add certainty, leading to logical cooperation, faster rollout and lower costs.

Of course, the government hasn't yet decided to accept the CCC's net zero advice, and may not do so. But already, momentum towards net zero appears already to have changed one concrete decision, persuading the SNP to roll back on a cut to aviation tax.

And if you're wondering what the zero-carbon options are in sectors such as transport, industry and agriculture, check out our Briefings.

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