Leading or lagging: Is 2050 too late for net-zero in the UK?

When the UK first announced its legally binding net-zero target, it was described as 'world-leading'. But, given that the IPCC recommended 2050 as a final cut-off date, the debate has been intensifying around whether the nation can go further and faster.

The UK's climate action is under mounting scrutiny in the lead-up to COP26

The UK's climate action is under mounting scrutiny in the lead-up to COP26

As Bim Afolami MP said during his keynote speech at Net-Zero Live, disagreements about climate action in the UK’s political circles are no longer about whether action should be taken – they are about the “means and the speed”.

2019’s general election saw the Lib Dems argue the case for a 2045 deadline and for the prioritisation of nature-based solutions. Labour and the Green Party both pitched deadlines in the 2030s. And the Conservative Party doubled down on Theresa May’s 2050 date and signalled its backing for offshore wind, nuclear power and hydrogen.

In the months since Boris Johnson was appointed, to-do lists across Whitehall have been dominated by the urgency of the Covid-19 crisis. But climate action has never been far from the table, with the growing green recovery movement outlining the intersections between climate change and other pressing challenges – and urging Johnson to go further and faster on all fronts.

One contributing factor – pandemic aside - is the growing bodies of research outlining that the climate and biodiversity crises are exponential – happening more rapidly than anticipated and classified as irreversible. Even the IPCC’s initial landmark report warned that 2050 was the latest stopping-off date and that, even if it were met, the world could still exceed 1.5C.

Considering this information, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas recently said that “aiming to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 is like dialling 999 and asking for the fire brigade to come in 30 years’ time” -- especially given that the UK's domestic emissions are less than 3% of the global total annually.

Similarly, many local authorities and businesses have set net-zero deadlines far more ambitious than central government’s, stating that they can and should move faster. And a recent call to action from scientists urged nations to go beyond net-zero and sequester more emissions than they generate.

Committee on Climate Change

With all of this in mind, it was hardly surprising that Committee on Climate Change (CCC) chairman Lord Deben was asked for his views on target timing at edie's Net-Zero Live.

When it presented its first net-zero advice to the UK Government, the Committee called 2050 a “bold” goal. The event saw Deben admit that while opinion may now differ on the “boldness” of the deadline, the Committee is not willing to formally recommend an earlier deadline at present.

He said: “There are those who want us to get it done quicker – before 2050. The reason the CCC is there is to see what is the best, quickest and most sensible way forward. If I should propose we could do this quicker, I’d be the first there. But all the evidence is that, because you have to organise things, invest in things and create new circumstances entirely, we simply can’t do it before 2050.”

Specifically, Deben cited hard-to-abate sectors like agriculture. He argued that, even if innovation in these fields accelerates, the difference to delivery would likely be “a couple of years”. CCC chief executive Chris Stark took a similar line of argument pre-Covid-19, arguing that a 2045 deadline could prove expensive due to technology gaps in several high-emitting sectors.

Deben’s main concern was not which date the Government has chosen, but the apparent gap between talk and action:  “All these commitments to dates and to net-zero and building back better mean absolutely nothing unless we do them,” he said. “And, for me, the real issue is getting it done.”

First movers

Of course, for the whole of the UK economy to get to net-zero by 2050, some regions and sectors will need to spearhead the transition.

The power sector is the obvious first mover here – it must be ready to enable the electrification of sectors like heat and transport and to deliver low-carbon fuels at scale. Strong progress has been made to date, with power ceasing to be the UK’s most-emitting sector in 2016, following years of shared work on renewable generation, efficiency and flexibility.  

In a panel debate at Net-Zero Live, the Association for Decentralised Energy’s head of policy Caroline Bragg argued that the UK will need to decarbonise electricity by the “mid-2030s” and heat by the “early 2040s” if it is to meet its 2050 net-zero target. She argued that, while 2050 may seem unambitious for the sector, most players are working towards other “extremely challenging” visions, such as the National Grid ESO’s Future Energy Scenarios. The most ambitious of these scenarios shows negative power sector emissions by 2030.

The Renewable Energy Association’s chief executive Nina Skorupska agreed, adding that the government is potentially “underestimating” the “valuable contributions” which technologies like batteries and hydrogen will play in accelerating decarbonisation.

Energy UK’s head of new energy services and heat, Charles Wood, sympathised with Skorupska and Bragg. But, for the economy as a whole, he still called 2050 “a helpful initial date” – so long as businesses treat it as a “stop-off date” and continue looking to go further.

True business leadership?

To Wood’s point, recent weeks have seen several businesses bring their net-zero deadlines forward, including Tesco and John Lewis Partnership. Both retailers had set initial 2050 deadlines and have now chosen 2035.

Others, like KPMG and Dentsu International, have set pre-2050 goals. And, in the UK’s water and retail sectors, collaborative roadmaps for achieving net-zero before mid-century are being developed. There is also a growing cohort of businesses striving to neutralise their lifetime emissions or to sequester more carbon than they emit. Amid this backdrop, companies with 2050 goals are increasingly being accused of complacency or outright greenwashing.

But for all the welcome noise on climate leadership in the private sector, there are concerns about how much is just that – talk, not action. A recent survey of energy managers at 104 organisations by Inspired Energy found that only half "fully understand" the term 'net-zero'. Moreover, two-thirds of respondents voiced concern about jargon and almost nine in ten said that ‘net zero’ is in danger of becoming a meaningless statement unless there’s consistency in approach and measurement among businesses.

A similar recent analysis of the net-zero targets and roadmaps of 30 large businesses by Bloomberg NEF found that “no two are the same”.

The analyst firm warned that a lack of standardisation around terms like “net-zero”, “carbon-neutral”, “net-positive” and “net-negative” could undermine the credibility of commitments in the long-term. It also stated that many companies with net-zero goals are yet to set science-based targets, which would require them to prioritise emissions reductions over offsetting and to address their Scope 3 (indirect) emissions.

As such, BNEF believes that regulators and governments must step in sooner rather than later to simplify a “Wild West” of varying definitions – and to prevent companies which will continue to contribute to climate change from acting like they are leading the low-carbon transition. Governments with net-zero targets could mandate corporates to set science-based goals which either align with national ambition or outpace it. Regulators, meanwhile, could crack down on greenwash.

In a positive first step towards the latter of these trends, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced this month that it will implement new measures to stop corporates from publishing misleading claims that overstate their positive environmental impacts – and to hold them to account if they do.

But with rules for sectors like fashion, cleaning products and health and beauty products set to be developed first, time will tell how regulators plan to hold the most-emitting sectors, like oil and gas, accountable.

Sarah George



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