UK's net-zero target possible with 'unprecedented' low-carbon innovation

Reaching net-zero emissions in the UK by 2050 is possible but would require "unprecedented innovation across the economy" that could see electricity generation triple, hydrogen generation grow exponentially and land use to be radically overhauled across the country.

Forestry growth and rapid deployment of renewables could put the UK on course for its net-zero target

Forestry growth and rapid deployment of renewables could put the UK on course for its net-zero target

Those are the key findings of a new study from independent, not-for-profit Energy Systems Catapult, which has found that net-zero emissions can be reached by 2050 it the UK Government upscales innovation across low-carbon technology, lifestyle changes and land use.

The study modelled hundreds of pathways to the UK’s enshrined 2050 target, examining how ramping up technologies alongside changing consumer behaviours towards carbon-intensive activities such as diets and flying could create a cost-effective pathway to net-zero emissions.

Crucially, the study found that net-zero emissions can be reached at a cost of just 1-2% of national GDP, which was first highlighted by the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCCs) net-zero recommendation report that influenced the Government’s net-zero decision.

Groups like Extinction Rebellion have called for the UK Government to move the target to 2025, but the Catapult study suggests that the 2050 target could only be pushed forward by a maximum of five years. Even then, this would not be possible “without highly speculative changes to lifestyle, land use and low carbon technologies.” Speculative changes, the report states, would focus on the elimination of demand for aviation and livestock products in the UK.

Low-carbon solutions

The study notes the need for “robust and enduring policies and regulation” that would help spur the market for low-carbon technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), bioenergy and hydrogen. The Catapult study claims that CCS and bioenergy are both “essential” technologies for delivering net-zero emissions. It is unlikely that the UK will have any industrial-scale CCS projects up and running until the mid-2020s.

Bioenergy is crucial to help offset continued demand for aviation and livestock products, the report states, while CCS will help mitigate industrial emissions and an anticipated increase in hydrogen production.

Hydrogen may need to reach today’s electricity generation in order to supply carbon-intensive sectors such as heavy industry, heat and transport. A knock-on effect of the hydrogen generation will be the near tripling of electricity generation if hydrogen is created used electrolysis. Even without taking hydrogen into account, electricity generation will need to double to around 600TWh to support the electrification of heating and transport. As a result, renewable technologies such as solar and wind will need to “grow significantly” to help reach net-zero.

Nuclear will also have a role to play in meeting net-zero, namely the use of smaller, modular units to support around 75% of all district heat schemes in urban areas. The report notes that nuclear units will range from 7GW to 20 smaller reactors with a capacity of 300MW and would represent a 10-fold increase on current stocks. More broadly, up to 30GW of nuclear capacity generating 230TWh may be required under certain scenarios.

Lifestyle reforms

While low-carbon technology will need to be ramped up, carbon-intensive lifestyle changes will need to simultaneously be ramped down to meet net-zero.

The report notes that livestock production for meat and dairy will need to be cut by at least 20% to reduce emissions, but this may need to be increased to 50% based on the speed and scale of low-carbon technology deployment.

New forestry will also be able to act as a long-term carbon sink that could also allow for biomass crops to be harvested for energy. When coupled with CCS, the report notes that the UK can deliver “more intensive and indefinite sequestration”.

Planting a forest of up to 50,000 hectares annually (around twice the size of Birmingham) may be required to offset up to 33Mt of carbon emissions equivalent by 2050.

The rollout and upscaling of all these facets will depend on the development of clear policy frameworks. In particular, the report calls for the development of tradable carbon credits to drive capital flow to areas of high decarbonisation, local area energy planning and the reform of power markets as key policy introductions to spur the country towards net-zero.

Responding to the report, David Smith, chief executive of Energy Networks Association said: “Energy network companies are investing in innovation to help deliver Net-Zero by 2050…We now need the government to make the big and bold policy decisions which support this approach in the long term, backed up by a regulatory framework that encourages innovation and investment.”

Smart Energy GB’s head of corporate affairs Robert Cheesewright added: “As this report highlights, a significant proportion of the challenges remaining for the UK to reach Net-Zero are in the carbon-intensive areas of transport, electricity and heating. Powering these aspects of our daily lives with low-carbon electricity is key to reaching our Net-Zero targets.

 “Making the necessary shift to electrified heating, household energy and mobility will require an energy system that’s modernised and can cope with this increased electricity demand. Smart meters are a critical aspect of enabling the flexible electricity usage our system will rely upon. For individuals hoping to play a role in getting Britain to Net Zero, getting a smart meter is a crucial first step.”

The Catapult report echoes the findings of the first comprehensive update to Project Drawdown’s list of climate solutions since it was first published in 2017. The update was published last month and claimed that humanity will be able to reach a net-zero world by 2050 using existing, established technologies and practices.

According to the updated report, it would be “feasible” to reach Drawdown - the point at which greenhouse gas (GHG) levels in the atmosphere peak and begin declining – by the early 2040s and global net-zero by 2050 without the use of any technologies and practices which do not currently exist – so long as simultaneous transitions towards stopping emissions at the source and sequestering them are made quickly.

Matt Mace



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