CCC boss: Net-zero before 2050 would be ‘very risky’ for UK economy

The Committee on Climate Change's (CCC) chief executive Chris Stark has defended the body's decision not to advise the Government on pathways which could create a net-zero carbon economy before 2050, arguing that doing so would be "very risky" from a social and economic perspective.

CCC boss: Net-zero before 2050 would be ‘very risky’ for UK economy

The evidence session was the first to discuss the CCC's net-zero advice

Speaking at an evidence session held by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee this morning (8 May), Stark was asked to shed some more light on the CCC’s net-zero advice to Government, which was published last week.

The advice was widely welcomed by members of the UK’s green economy, with experts urging the Government to adopt the recommendations in order to open up new market opportunities for low-carbon goods and services.

Nonetheless, critics have also questioned the CCC’s decision to set the target for reaching net-zero for 2050 – the date which the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has claimed is the latest by which global carbon pollution should come down to zero if the global temperature increase is to be kept below 1.5C.

WWF, Greenpeace and Christian Aid, for example, have argued that the date should instead be set at 2045 for the UK, while activist movement Extinction Rebellion has been pushing for an even more ambitious 2025 deadline. 

When asked to respond to these critiques during the session, Stark said: “We made a really in-depth analysis of when we though net-zero was possible and appropriate under current and future technologies with cost reductions built in. Anything prior to 2050 looks very risky and would incur, probably, scrappage costs and many physical barriers [which would affect] the capital stock turnover.

“Overall, we can just about see a way to manage the kind of transition that would be needed by 2050. Over 30 years, you can plan for that carefully – if you don’t, and policy isn’t put in place at the right moment, you’ll get to the end of that period and need to start scrapping capital to meet those targets. That is expensive.

“It’s important to say that 2050 is very ambitious. This is not, in any sense, an easy strategy that we have laid out. It includes a very substantial turbo-boost to policy right across the piece.”

Stark clarified that the CCC believes some individual sectors could reach net-zero before 2050, but that that 2045 target which his team had considered is “not feasible” given the current policy gaps around large parts of the nation’s physical infrastructure – including buildings, heavy industry facilities, transport and green spaces.

“Some sectors can go faster – and will need to,” he added.

“The most obvious example of this is the power sector, where the path is clear… But there are physical infrastructure questions that need to be answered over a relatively short timescale. If policy was put in place sooner, at the appropriate ambition, it may be possible to do this earlier – and, indeed, the whole mark of what the UK has done on climate change and emissions reduction is that the targets are reset when the evidence supports.”

Who pays?

As the session continued, MPs asked Stark how the costs associated with the transition to a net-zero economy – which the CCC has placed at 1-2% of GDP, the same it originally allocated to meeting the less ambitious Climate Change Act (CCA) – would impact businesses and consumers.

He claimed it was “hard to say directly” without the Government laying out an exact policy pathway, but re-assured the Committee that the financial weight placed on business and the general public would be “manageable” if the CCC’s recommendations are adopted in full.

He said: “Overall, we see these costs as manageable. Ten years ago, when we gave our advice on the appropriate target and said it should be 80% by 2050, we assessed the cost as 1-2% of GDP. Ten years later, that cost is probably more like 0.3% of GDP because key technologies have fallen in cost.

“The question of how you allocate the costs that are left between businesses, consumers and the public sector is one that the Treasury needs to think about very carefully. I am very optimistic that, if they do that, we will continue to see the costs falls that we’ve seen over the past 10 years, particularly if we bring market forces to bare.”

One of the technologies which has been “instrumental” in reducing the costs of decarbonisation for the UK, Stark explained, is offshore wind. 2017’s Contract for Difference (CfD) auction saw bids for two new offshore wind contracts reach “unprecedented” low prices of £57.50/MWh – almost half of the average strike price two years prior. BEIS also expects the price to average £53/MWh between 2023 to 2035. Other research suggests that Britain is on course for a subsidy-free renewables “revolution” that could add 18GW of new capacity by 2030 and attract £20bn of investment.

Stark attributed this success to the implementation of policy frameworks which made wind power attractive to private investors but argued that the Government could have achieved the same result by managing public spending. He urged the MPs to support similar policies across harder-to-abate sectors such as transport and heat, as well as for newer technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS), regardless of whether Government funding or private investment is prioritised.

Sarah George

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie