Decarbonisation by 2050 can be achieved at ‘very low cost’

Turner said the government should be open-minded about using a mix of market and regulatory mechanisms to cut emissions

Lord Turner, who chaired the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) from 2008 to 2012, told a briefing last week (24 April) that the “net-zero” emissions target could be achieved even faster than the middle of this century.

At the event, organised by the Energy and Climate Information Unit thinktank ahead of the publication next week of the CCC’s report on the feasibility of meeting the zero-carbon goal by 2050, he said: “The critical thing is that we can do it at very low cost by 2050.

And meeting the net-zero goal by 2045 is achievable with “real effort and some behavioural change”, the former CBI director general said: “If society is willing to accept more than a trivial cost, we could bring that date forward.”

The government has sought the CCC’s advice following the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s conclusion last October that global emissions must be cut to net zero by 2050 in order to prevent average worldwide temperatures rising 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The government’s current target is to cut carbon emissions to 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050.

Lord Turner, who is now chair of the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC), said that in order to meet the more stretching net-zero target the electricity system should “ideally” be “almost entirely” decarbonised by 2030. Ensuring the electricity system is fully decarbonised by 2050 will require either the total removal of gas during the previous 20 years or the fitting of carbon capture and storage technology on the remaining peaking plants.

However, the “unanticipated over-achievement” of the power sector has “covered up” the UK’s failure to cut emissions from surface transport and homes, which has seen “insufficient progress”, the peer said: “We’re going to have to get serious about the home and transport sectors, which have bluntly been failures in the last five years.”

He also said the government should be open-minded about using a mix of market and regulatory mechanisms to cut emissions.

Lord Turner said there had been “too much focus” on market solutions in the years following 2010, adding that the coalition government’s Green Deal initiative had been less successful than more directly interventionist schemes for subsidising loft insulation.

“One has to be pragmatic… A more regulated government-driven approach may be better to get us there rapidly. We need to strike a balance between markets and regulation.”

Alex Kazaglis, principal of Vivid Economics, told the briefing that the work his company had fed into the CCC report had demonstrated that full decarbonisation of the power sector is feasible.

He said the distribution grid can be expanded quickly enough to accommodate the anticipated increase in demand from electric vehicles.

And the decarbonisation of the grid could be accelerated if there are further drops in the cost of renewable energy, he added.

“Across all sectors, the options for moving to net zero exist – it’s not about finding new technologies, it’s about finding a route to market for those that exist already. And it is perfectly possible for the UK to move to net zero by 2050 with very little disruption.”

But he said that to cut emissions to net zero by 2025, the key demand of the Extinction Rebellion campaigners who occupied key central London landmarks last week, would require a “shift” in the balance from market-led solutions to heavier regulation.

Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director at the Confederation of British Industry, said companies can adapt to a net-zero future but only if they are given a clear road map by policy-makers.

He said: “It won’t happen on its own – and in terms of what business needs from government, I would sum it up as ‘certainty, certainty, certainty’. Firstly, signing up to net zero will provide certainty about the destination. Secondly, we need certainty about the policy framework that’s going to get us there – an end to the chopping and changing that we’ve seen in recent years. And finally, political certainty so we don’t have big changes after every general election; and it’s heartening therefore to see the strong cross-party consensus on net zero.

“The longer we delay, the harder it’s going to be. So, let’s get on with it.”

David Blackman

This article first appeared on edie’s sister title, Utility Week

Comments (4)

  1. Mike Parr says:

    Turner in common with many commits a category error in the use of the word "cost" and the phrase "low cost".

    It is generally accepted that to de-carb the elec power sector the UK will need to build out renewables. These will be a mix of on-shore & off-shore wind and PV. In the case of utility-scale systems all three categories are +/- at wholesale parity.

    The large-scale build out of RES will require large-scale deployment of capital. There are exactly two sources of capital: government money, private sector money. The former can be at an interest rate decided by government, the latter by whatever is "the going rate". Thus the "cost" of the build out is the cost of capital – which could range from fractions of a % to 4 or 5% or more.

    This leaves an open question for Mr Turner (a former banker) by using the phrase "very low cost" is he implying that the capital investment needed should be from government (since obviously this would be "very low cost"). Or is he implying that the commercial banking sector has suddenly grown a conscience and decided to offer "very low cost" interest rates for the RES build out?

    In the case of the expansion of the elec power network, obviously this requires capital, whilst at the same time, the DNOs owning the assets demand a return on these assets that is anything but "very low cost" – current rates of return being 5% – which is a wonderful return for a monopoly asset/service. I understand that Ofgem is currently waving its arms on the subject: however it is unclear if it is waving or drowing – probably the latter given its performance over the last 20 odd years.

    As for certainty, I can state with certainty that given current rates of build out for RES and current pathetic rates of energy renovation of the UK’s built environment. net-zero by 2050 will NEVER be achieved. So much for Turner & his la la land statements.

  2. Ian Byrne says:

    @Mike Parr – My interpretation of the words "low cost" means "low marginal cost compared to Business As Usual". So it’s not looking at the actual interest rates or expected returns on capital, but is asking the question about how much it will cost to go for zero carbon compared to (say) replacing coal with CCGT when generation assets reach the end of their useful life.

    So while I think it is certainly possible that we could reach net zero carbon by 2045 or 2050, I don’t believe it will be without a significant cost, although the combined cost of interventions to achieve net zero carbon may well be lower than BAU + adaptation costs from following BAU. My concern is that this second cost equivalence only works if there is a global drive to reduce emissions, for otherwise we will end up with having both mitigation and adaptation costs (and in total, I doubt that they will be "low"!)

    I completely agree that we need both Government intervention and the market – we cannot afford to waste time (and money) on failed market-led initiatives such as the Green Deal.

  3. Colin Megson says:

    The Climate Change Committee are tarnished by financial links to powerful renewables NGOs. They are, to a man/woman, demonstrably anti-nuclear and willfully ignoring burgeoning developments in advanced nuclear reactor power plants.

    Small Modular Reactors [SMRs] are the future of nuclear power in the UK and the first BWRX-300 will be operational in 2028 at a cost 60% below that of ‘big nuclear’. 3 or 4 years after that, they will be available at a cost of 452 million each.

    144 of them would supply all of the UK’s 340 TWh of electricity – in the low-carbon, 24/7 form – every year, for 60 years, at a cost of 65 billion.

    A reasonably ‘sensible’ mix of onshore and offshore wind, solar and CCGT backup would cost 8X more – 527 billion!

    This tells all of the CCC-lead, renewable-fantasists all they need to know about the tragic waste of precious material resources and the associated fossil-fuelled energy that needs to go into their nightmare vision of a 100% renewables UK.

    A nightmare 8X the cost; 20X to 30X the resource use; 100X the scenic desecration, ecosystem destruction and species wipe-out.

    Search for: the 100% uk low-carbon electricity gold medal

  4. Colin Matthews says:

    The elephant in the room is the 50% of U.K. energy is heat mainly from gas. Proposal is to electrify that…and we have yet to cut turf on a new power station…the electric network would need upgrading etc all at a cost no one wants to talk about….as for electric trucks they cost three times the price to go a third the distance of a diesel one with a 25%!payload hit (5 trucks needed for every current 4 = congestion). 15% shortage currently in truck drivers…can we have pragmatic workable plans please…

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