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expert reaction to the net zero report

A report published by The Committee on Climate Change states that the UK can end its contribution to global warming within 30 years by setting a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.

Prof Corinne Le Quéré FRS, Royal Society Research Professor at the University of East Anglia and Member of the Committee on Climate Change, said:

“The target of net-zero by 2050 in our CCC report refers to all greenhouse gases, without the use of international offsets and covering international aviation and shipping. There are many definitions of net-zero. All net-zeros are good, but not all net-zeros have the same level of ambition. Net-zero for all greenhouse gases ends the UK contribution to further warming.”

Prof Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts Research at the Met Office and Chair in Climate Impacts at the University of Exeter, said:

“The Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to 1.5C, but there is still a huge gulf between these ambitions and the reality of current international commitments.  This means that the world is still on track for major climate change impacts.  To help minimise these impacts, the CCC’s analysis shows how the UK can take a lead in reducing emissions faster.  As well as the big things that could be done by government and large organisations, they also make practical suggestions for individuals – so anyone wondering ‘what can I do?’ will find this useful.”

Prof Kevin Anderson, Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester, said:

“The CCC’s lengthy report will be enthusiastically welcomed by Government ministers, many senior academics and NGO glitterati. They will acknowledge the challenges it implies, whilst at the same time noting how the CCC has demonstrated a credible pathway to a ‘net’ zero carbon UK. But peer under the bonnet and all is not quite as it seems.

“The Paris Agreement combined with the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report sets the total quantity of carbon emissions we can emit (a global carbon budget range) if we’re to keep warming to “well below 2°C” and ideally “pursue … 1.5°C”. Although the CCC have not detailed their choice of UK carbon budget, read between the lines and it is clear they see this fair Isle receives a disproportionately large slice of the global carbon pie. Such colonialism is then exacerbated by passing a significant burden for reducing today’s emissions onto our children – and subsequently their children. These future generations will need to invent and deploy planetary-scale technologies to suck 100s of billions of tonnes of ‘our’ emissions out of the atmosphere.

“This generational transfer of responsibility enables the CCC to maintain a thriving aviation sector and leave unquestioned the huge inequality in who is responsible for most of UK emissions. What’s not to like – business as usual, albeit with a sizeable green twist, and influential high-emitting groups left unencumbered by policies tailored towards their carbon-intensive lifestyles. More disturbing still, clever use of the CCC’s report will see it used to support Heathrow expansion, shale gas developed and even ongoing offshore oil and gas exploration.

“So what if the UK were to make its ‘fair’ contribution to delivering on the Paris commitments, and without reliance on speculative ‘negative emission technologies’? The CCC would then need to recommend immediate reductions in carbon emissions of over 10% each year, delivering zero carbon energy some fifteen years before their 2050 date. Such an agenda would have profound implications for the dominant economic framing of society – with the simple maths of carbon budgets and timing of emissions putting equity at heart of the debate. Paris demands we do things differently. The time is long passed for ‘greening’ the current system!”

Dr Phil Williamson, Honorary Reader, University of East Anglia, said:

“It is welcome news that the Climate Change Committee has recommended a target date for the UK to achieve net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases.  Yet it is also disappointing that 2050 is no earlier than the global date necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.  The UK’s current share of global emissions may be relatively small, at around 1%; however, we are in the top 5 nations with regard to historical responsibilities for creating the climate change problem, and we have now outsourced much of our carbon-intensive manufacturing to other countries.  Is this really the ‘highest possible ambition’, as stated in the report?  More rapid progress would increase costs in some sectors, yet it would also provide additional economic opportunities; for example, in developing technologies for greenhouse gas removal”

Prof Simon Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science, University College London, said:

“The only way to stabilize the climate is to achieve net zero emissions. This new report shows that it is possible. The question now is if the political will is there to take on the vested interests that will try to stop the UK reaching net zero fast enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

Prof Iain Donnison, Head of the Institute of Biological, Environmental & Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, said:

“The report gives a clear message regarding the importance of the task and the role that the UK can play to compensate for past emissions and to help play a leadership role in creating a greener future.

“My own expertise is in agriculture and land use which features in the report in terms of targets for one fifth of agricultural land to be used for forestry, bioenergy crops and peatland restoration. I also live and work in Wales, and separate devolved targets for emission reduction are given in the report.

“The report says it seeks to be based on current technologies that can be deployed and achievable targets. One fifth of agricultural land is a very ambitious target but I believe that through the approaches proposed it is achievable (e.g. for bioenergy crops it fits in with published targets for the UK). This is based on the knowledge and technologies we have now regarding how to do this, and because right now in the UK we are developing new agricultural policy that looks beyond the common agriculture policy (CAP). For example the 25 year Environment plan published by Defra envisages payment for public goods which could provide a policy mechanism to help ensure that the appropriate approaches are implemented in the appropriate places.

“The scale of the change however should not be underestimated, although agriculture is a sector that has previously successfully responded to challenges such as for increased food production. The additional challenge will be to ensure that we deliver all the benefits we wish to see from land: food, carbon and greenhouse gas (GHG) management and wider environmental benefits, whilst managing the challenge of the impacts of climate change. The link is made between healthy diets with less red meat consumption and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture (e.g. methane from sheep, cattle and dairy). This reflects that agriculture will likely go through significant change over the coming decades as a result of changes in consumer diets that will also have an impact on GHG emissions. Net Zero targets however could provide significant diversification opportunities for both farmers and industries that make use of biomass and wood for the production of energy, materials including in construction and for wider environmental benefits.”

Dr Niall MacDowell, Senior Lecturer in Energy and Environmental Technology and Policy at Imperial College London, said:

“The new advice on the UK aiming at net-zero emissions by 2050 is welcome, and to be applauded.

Whilst the call for further support for early stage research is greatly welcomed, it is also important to note that all of the relevant technologies and approaches are essentially available today, and as noted by the report, what is most important is “policy stability” – policy flip-flopping is profoundly unhelpful, particularly noting the requirement to progress delivery with far greater urgency.

If the UK does, indeed, sign up to a legally binding target for net-zero GHG emissions by 2050, it will have recaptured the leadership position which it assumed with the passing of the 2008 Climate Change Act.

“However, in line with the content of the report, efforts to deliver this transition will need to be greatly accelerated, pursuing a broad portfolio of both emissions mitigation options, such as CO2 capture and storage (CCS), and greenhouse gas removal (GGR) options, such as biomass energy with CCS (BECCS) and afforestation.”

Dr Hannah Chalmers, Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“2019 promises to be an important year for CCS (carbon capture and storage) in the UK.  Last week, the BEIS Select Committee concluded that CCS is necessary for cost-effective action on climate change.  This report from the CCC confirms the importance of focussed Government action to ensure that CCS can grow to its full potential in the UK as soon as possible.  I am particularly pleased to see the recommendation that multiple CCS clusters are developed.  This should provide a robust approach to ensuring that CCS succeeds in the UK.  Developing and deploying shared infrastructure will enable a broad range of CO2 emitters to make timely and cost-effective use of CCS.”

Tony Roulstone, Lecturer in Nuclear Energy at the university of Cambridge, said:

“While there are plans for 80% cut on GHG by 2050, there is an international drive for developed countries to go further and to achieve levels associated with perhaps 1.5 degrees C temperature rise rather than the 2degrees C agreed at Paris CC Conference. Also, there is pressure (e.g. Extinction Rebellion) to move more quickly and to achieve net zero Carbon by 2030. CCC report seems to be a set of policy options to move more quickly and a broad brush justification of such action. However, they do say that achieving net zero by 2030 is infeasible. This judgement should not be controversial to anyone with knowledge of the nature and scale of the CC challenge in the UK or elsewhere, even if it is not accepted by many activists.

The report assumes that the current Government 80% plan is successful and goes further both in seeking a 100% target, accelerating current plans and removing carbon credits as a mean is counting savings. Both of these things are to be welcomed.

Also, the new set of options are welcome because they open up the debate about what can be done and what is the best route to a low carbon economy. The new plan is based on:

Extension of existing low-carbon options e.g. more offshore wind,

A range of new and largely untried, or not demonstrated at scale, technologies are proposed: CCS, BECC, DACC, mass energy storage, Hydrogen as a fuel;

Major changes in behaviour: eating, heating and travel;

New technologies not yet developed or demonstrated for: heavy vehicles, air and sea transport.

The last 20-30% of GHG reduction will be much harder than what has been achieved. Cost will be higher and the number of people affect will be much larger. Proposed changes to food, space heating and transport will affect almost everyone in the country.

The report’s own risk assessment points to the uncertainties in some of technologies, their maturity, how new developments will be funded and the costing of the overall plan. It points out the need for urgent large scale demonstrator projects to turn potential technologies into viable options that can be deployed at scale, starting in 2030. Also, investment to address some of the transport issues for which no technology is currently available. They point out that the problem is so difficult that all means of reducing GHG must be included and no single technology is likely to provide the whole answer.

The weakest part of the report is the apparently broad brush approach to costs – both future energy costs and investment costs. Future energy costs for the period to 2050 are uncertain but are presented as if firm. In particular, the system costs imposed by intermittent renewables are questionable. Other studies have shown them to be large and not something that will be cut by reductions in the cost of batteries.

Current CC (investment & subsidy) costs are probably <1% of GDP and the BEIS plan will cost ~2% of GDP each year to 2050. CCC are proposing a further 1-2% of GDP pa during the period. If so the overall CC cost would be £2,700-3,600bn during the next thirty years. This is a huge sum and a significant share of the UK economical wealth – a barrier to simple and rapid adoption of the plan.”

Specific Questions:

On whether it is realistic considering we are currently not on track to meet the current 80 per cent target

“It is easy to criticise progress but UK is in the middle of the group of developed nations if one takes out the major low-carbon economies of Sweden and France which benefits from almost completely low-carbon electricity from hydro, wind and nuclear. Much progress has been made by the ‘dash for gas’, de-industrialisation, energy efficiency and large scale support for investment in wind and solar.

UK is halfway between 1990 and 2050 and have achieved about 40% of the required GHG reduction. This progress though commendable addressed the simplest part of the problem and the part most under control of the Government. There is no evidence in Government of real commitment to make the sort of the changes being proposed, either in terms of investment or behaviour change.

Some specific points:

Some of the new proposals e.g. bio-fuels and large-scale bio-based carbon capture seems far-fetched in a small constrained country like the UK,

Others are as yet not technical feasible (hard transport cases: HGV, air and sea)

Others (like electric space heating with distribution upgrade) while necessary are not technically difficult but would very expensive and resource intensive.

Also, key planks of the plan such as economic removal of carbon from the atmosphere has not been demonstrated.

Achievement of the plan would require a level of urgency in Government and an acceptance of disruption and costs by the whole population that is currently evident.”

On examples of what we might have to do – what will it mean for energy, transport, home design etc. how this is going to affect our way of life.

“Changes in behaviour are a major part of the plan. Some may not seem radical if the infrastructure is put in place and are done over a period of many years i.e. EVs but others such changes in travel, including major constraints on air travel, in eating habits and in land use will be much more difficult –potentially pitting the State against the Citizen. Also, the use of carbon pricing of imported goods and food to reflect the built-in carbon, could increase prices substantially.”

On the implied cost of doing things so differently:

“These costs are hard to estimate but the cost of carbon abatement provided in the report gives some idea of the relative cost. Currently, we have a carbon price (including ETS) of about £25tn/CO2. Report gives abatement costs of up to £300/tne CO2 for things that are essential to their plan. Using average abatement cost of £100-200/tneCO2 the annual costs is implied £50-100 bn pa. if less than half of this cost fell on energy these costs would double in real terms.”

On how feasible the target is and how much government investment is needed to achieve it: “The investment level could be huge tens of billion pounds pa. While much of this investment could be from the private sector, it would have to be supported by regulation and/or subsidy, with these costs ultimately falling to the general public and to industry.”

Dr Ajay Gambhir, Senior Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London, said:

“The CCC’s roadmap to net zero greenhouse gases by 2050 is very clear, detailed and well-reasoned. It also looks eminently achievable, so long as the policies and measures are put in place. It should form a template for not only current and future UK governments, but also for other countries. If the UK doesn’t ultimately make its fair contribution to the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, we’ll look back on this report and ask why its advice wasn’t followed.”

Prof Chris Huntingford of the UKRI Centre for Ecology and Hydrology said:

“Human ingenuity has harnessed fossil fuels to build a developed world that offers huge benefits to many, but unfortunately this is affecting the climate system. This report offers great hope that the very same ingenuity will dramatically reduce emissions, yet maintain or even enhance the sophistication of the world we live in”.

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald FREng, Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge and Director of The Royal Institution, said:

“I am of course a massive supporter of efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. It has been core to my whole career – from green energy supply in the form of geothermal power through to reduction in energy demand in the form of energy efficient buildings. There is much we can do, but are all the recommendations realistic? The issue is that there are so many recommendations because there is no silver bullet – it needs a lot of work in a lot of areas.

“I think that the committee might need to look a bit further at societal acceptance of some of the recommendations and how this might be achieved – for example, will people be prepared to set their winter time thermostat to 19C? We know the impact of reducing it from say 21C to 19C is significant, but asking people to put up with a reduction in comfort/quality is going to be difficult. Contrast that with switching to low energy lighting – that will likely be a lot easier because we are not asking people to reduce the quality of their internal environment.

“There is also the challenge of our existing building stock – the prize for improving the efficiency of these buildings is again significant. However, there is a practical challenge in terms of the number of sufficient skilled workers to undertake the work, and then of course the barrier of getting homeowners to get the work done. The financial incentives from things like the Green Deal show how difficult it is to devise schemes which actually work and which get taken up on a scale which then makes a difference.

“There are things we can do, and many of the recommendations in the report seem very sensible – but engagement of citizens in different circumstances will be crucial in order to determine which recommendations might need more work.”

Professor Paul Ekins, Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, said:

“Hopefully the CCC net zero report will lay to rest once and for all the misperception that deep decarbonisation is either impossibly difficult or impossibly expensive. The Advisory Group on Costs and Benefit looked in detail at the opportunities for decarbonisation and the associated costs, and came to the unequivocal conclusion that the net zero target in 2050 could be achieved with at worst small costs and possibly with significant net economic benefits.

“The assumptions underlying this conclusion are that innovation in low-carbon technologies continues through support for their development and large-scale deployment, and that government policy is credible, consistent and long-term, employing both regulation and market-based instruments in an appropriate mix. While achieving ‘net zero’ by 2050 will be challenging, it should be seen as an industrial opportunity to enable UK businesses to engage in some of the fastest-growing market sectors in the world. With its Clean Growth Strategy, the government has some of the building blocks for this effort in place. It now needs to greatly accelerate its implementation of the ideas it sets out there and those in the CCC report.”

Prof Stuart Haszeldine FRSE, Professor of Carbon Capture and Storage at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“The CCC says that our carbon credit card is maxed out, the warning messages have been ignored, and we now urgently need to start paying off the overdraft.  But carbon management will create tens of thousands of jobs and safeguard UK industry.

“We can imagine a bath as the total stock, or content, of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  These emissions reductions are a bit like filling a bath with water and simultaneously draining it.  At present we have two taps filling the bath, with no drain – the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere is increasing rapidly.  Reducing emissions means gradually turning off one tap through Efficiency, and then progressively turning off the second tap through Capture. ‘Negative emissions’ is like gradually opening the drain plug; first the bath stops filling as rapidly, and then when Negative Emissions are large enough to balance both the input taps, the water level stays constant – that is Net Zero. If the hard-to-treat emissions tap can be turned off a bit more, and especially if the drain plug of Negative Emissions can be opened more, then the water level decreases. That decrease is on the correct path to 2C warming. The bath doesn’t need to be empty, but the water level needs to stay a lot lower than it is now.

“One common misperception is that Net Zero is an end-point destination in the future, and the job will be done. It is not. Net Zero is the point in time at which the UK manages to recapture as much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, as it emits in that year. In that year the UK will still be emitting greenhouse gases, from sections of the economy described as “hard to treat” – which are abundant dispersed emissions or expensive-to-catch emissions. These are estimated to be equivalent to about 130 Million tonnes of CO2 (i.e. including all greenhouse gases) per year, at the point of Net Zero.

“To arrive at Net Zero doesn’t mean starting the day before, it means starting Negative Emissions actions from many years before then in time.  Negative Emissions are re-capturing CO2 which has already been emitted, just like growing new trees catches carbon dioxide from air and turns that into wood.  The UK must continue strong actions to continue reducing its emissions to minimise the hard-to-treat.  In addition, Negative Emissions must start as early as the mid 2020s and certainly during the 2030’s. These Negative Emissions gradually increase to reach 130 Million tonnes per year, at the point of Net Zero. To get onto a pathway which fits with the Paris Agreement of keeping global warming less than 2C, the UK needs to go even further, beyond Net Zero, to continue Negative Emissions for decades or hundreds of years into the future.

“Negative Emissions should be achieved domestically within the UK, as these are emissions recaptured from the global atmosphere; so if the UK asks another country to recapture and store our emissions on our behalf, that has to be in addition to the other country’s own emissions.

“The CCC report highlights many technologies to help with reducing emissions and recapturing the already emitted greenhouse gases. Most of these end up with CO2 stored securely in geological layers deep below ground. Consequently, the ability to capture, transport, and especially to store CO2, laces through all these actions and weaves them together. It doesn’t matter if it’s trees, industrial processes, power plants or Direct Air Capture. All of these need CO2 to be stored for ten thousand years. Faced with that, the Government CCS programme to have just one UK region starting capture in the late 2020s is correct, but needs radical acceleration to become five regions from the early 2020s.”

Dr Joeri Rogelj, Lecturer in Climate Change and Environment, Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, said:

“The science is clear on what needs to be done to cap global warming, and the CCC’s Net Zero Report provides a realistic and fair translation of how the UK can play its role in achieving this challenge. The CCC’s recommendations show realism by spelling out key steps towards achieving a net zero target in the UK, including switching to electric cars, low-carbon  housing, and carbon removal – at costs that are manageable and have come down over the past decades thanks to incredible technological innovation.” 

“Equally important for understanding the realism of a net zero UK is the CCC report’s warning to government that its global climate leadership cannot be taken for granted or achieved by merely paying lip service to ambitious ideas: the UK government is currently off track to meet its even weaker current targets.”

Professor Phil Taylor, Head of the School of Engineering at Newcastle University, said:

“Achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions is necessary, feasible and cost effective but UK Policy is still way off the mark and the foundations are not in place to be able to meet this target.

“Even with all the evidence before us we are still opening new coal mines, extending Heathrow airport and pushing forward with fracking.  We have unambitious building regulations, our drive to phase out petrol and diesel cars is too late, and we are withdrawing from carbon capture and storage demonstration.

“To have any hope of achieving the net zero target we must move on from our obsession about decarbonising electricity and deal with more difficult challenges of decarbonising heating and transport as soon as possible.

“We need to stop talking about low carbon solutions being too expensive and look instead at the cost of climate change if we don’t adopt them. And we need to do this without delay.  Due to the lag in the climate system we must recognise that even if we act now we will still see significant climate change between now and 2050.

“As a country that became wealthy from exploiting fossil fuels at the expense of the global climate we have a duty to lead the way in decarbonising.”

Professor Hayley Fowler, Professor of Climate Change Impacts, Newcastle University

“The world has already warmed more than 1 degree since pre-industrial times, with human activity the major cause. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released a report that stated that to keep below 1.5 degrees warmer we need to reduce our CO2 emissions by 50% in the next 12 years and to zero by 2050. For a 2-degree threshold we still need to reduce our emissions by half within the next 30 years.

“This challenge is necessary as we are already seeing the impacts of climate change: more powerful and intense storm events, flooding, droughts and sea level rise and science tells us that 2 degrees or warming brings us to some dangerous tipping points or thresholds that will seriously affect human society.

“The scale of change is immense but not insurmountable. I welcome the publication of the new report today which sets out ambitious targets for phasing out CO2 emissions by 2050 to end the UK’s contribution to global warming. The UK has been a leader in this area since the Climate Change Act as implemented over 10 years ago. Climate change is a serious concern for us and future generations and we must start to make easy and more difficult changes to our lifestyles to reduce emissions, with the lead from Government as set out in the new report.”

Prof Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London (UCL), said:

“The Climate Change Committee is absolutely correct in recommending the UK Government change our legal carbon emissions target to zero.  The science is very clear if we are to have any chance of keeping the world from warming more than 2˚C then the whole world must hit zero carbon emissions by 2050.  The CCC recommendation as not ambitious enough suggesting we could hit our zero-carbon target by 2050.  But if we are to lead by example and develop solutions and technology for the rest of the world, we need to aim to decarbonise in the next decade. 

“The Climate Change Committee zero carbon target is essential, but their date of 2050 is too far in the future.  As one of the leading countries in the fight against climate change, Britain must adopt a 2030 zero-carbon target – giving us 10 years to put in place win-win solutions that reduce carbon emissions, save money and make Britain a better, cleaner place to live.”

Prof Jim Watson, Director of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) and Professor of Energy Policy at UCL, said:

“A transition to a net-zero UK economy is technically achievable. The main question is whether it can be delivered in practice. In addition to adopting a net zero target, government will need to implement fundamental and wide-ranging policy reforms necessary to achieve this goal by 2050.

“These reforms are needed so that climate change mitigation becomes a central goal of the UK’s economic policy – and not just a matter of climate change and energy policy. This means a central role for the Treasury, monitoring emissions as closely as we monitor GDP growth and employment, and ensuring that all government decisions are compatible with a net zero pathway. It is also crucial that the government strategy for net zero provides the right incentives for businesses and has justice at its heart. If the costs and benefits of the net zero transition are not distributed fairly, there is a high risk it will be derailed.”

Prof David Reay, Professor of Carbon Management, University of Edinburgh, said:

“Make no mistake, this report will change your life. If the meticulous and robust expert advice here is heeded it will deliver a revolution in every facet of our lives, from how we power our homes and travel to work, to the food we buy and the holidays we take.

“For those who still lobby for delay under a smokescreen of economics the message is blunt: Net Zero is affordable and the sooner we can get there the better for everyone. Crucially, choosing this steep descent to a climate neutral future is in line with holding global warming to 1.5 degrees and leads the way for developed nations around the world to follow.

“Aviation and agriculture come in for particular scrutiny given their status as ‘hard to budge’ emissions sources. Emissions from international aviation are still rising fast and the advice acknowledges that carbon neutral flying is unlikely even by 2050. Likewise, producing our food means some unavoidable emissions. Both can see major cuts via changing demand, such as price hikes for long-distance air travel and a transition away from beef, lamb and dairy in our weekly shopping baskets. The green and pleasant saviour that then squares the circle of ‘net zero’ by 2050 is our land: by reducing demand for meat and improving crop yields, huge areas of land – over 30,000 hectares a year – could be made available for tree planting, peatland restoration and energy crops.

“Greta Thunberg says our house is on fire. This is how to put that fire out.”

‘Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming’ was published by The Committee on Climate Change at 00.01 on Thursday 2 May 2019.

Declared interests

Prof Watson chaired the CCC’s Expert Advisory Group on Reaching Net-zero Emissions in the UK.

Prof Reay: Nothing to declare

Prof Rogelj: I have been consulted for the report but was not directly involved in drafting or preparing any of the input material to it. 

Prof Taylor is Director of the EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration (CESI) and Siemens Professor of Energy Systems

Prof Maslin has no conflicts of interest to declare

Prof Ekins chaired the Advisory Group on Costs and Benefits.

No others received

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