Zero Carbon UK ….. by 2050? A commentary on the new CCC report.

A gas boiler

A domestic gas boiler: these will all need replacing if the UK is to get to zero carbon emissions.

Comments on the CCC (2019) Net Zero Report: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming.

A guest article by Peter Somerville

This report is a significant improvement on previous reports from the UK government’s independent advisory Committee on Climate Change. It recognises that net greenhouse gas emissions must reach zero by 2050 at the latest, instead of being reduced by only 80%, and it now includes emissions from aviation and shipping in this target. It also provides numerous suggestions for improving policy and practice. However:

Although the report recognises that consumption-based emissions are considerable (69% greater than territorial emissions – pp. 105,163), and consequently that measures have to be taken to make consumers buy or use low-carbon products, the calculation of such emissions still does not include those that are embodied in imported products. So unless countries exporting to the UK make similar reductions in their emissions, the UK will not be net zero GHG by 2050. Given this context, statements such as that the UK has reduced its emissions by over 40% from 1990 to 2018 (p20) are disingenuous and misleading – the truth is that they have hardly reduced at all.

Although the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels is mainly responsible for GHG emissions, this report does not tackle the issue directly but only makes assumptions about the extent to which they will be reduced. Notably, in the section in the Executive Summary on policies to reduce emissions (pp32-5), phasing out high-carbon power is not even mentioned. Currently, the UK government provides huge subsidies to fossil fuel industries, encourages fracking, approves new coal mines, and so on, and finance companies, pension funds and other institutions continue to invest heavily in fossil fuels. This report, however, says virtually nothing about any of these things – just one mention of an inquiry into UK Export Finance investing in and subsidising fossil fuel industry in developing countries (p118). Perhaps we should not be surprised by this because one member of the committee is a senior manager at Drax.

The report states that reducing emissions to net zero ‘would end the UK’s contribution to rising global temperatures’ (p16). This is a common misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the situation. Basically, global temperatures depend on the total amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (the stock, not the flow), and this carbon dioxide continues to absorb infrared solar radiation for 100 years after it has been emitted, resulting in continuous temperature increases. So, unless it is sequestered in some way, the carbon dioxide emitted up to 2050 will continue contributing to increasing global temperatures for a long time after 2050. A similar misunderstanding appears to occur on p26, where it is stated that ‘minimal residual emissions can be tolerated in most sectors’: this can be the case only if the land-based removals and CCS outweigh these residual emissions, which seems unlikely (the report provides no convincing argument on this point).

Given the extent of change now required to avoid climate catastrophe, it is frankly ridiculous to compare it with the natural gas switchover in the 1970s or the switch to digital broadcasting in the 2000s (p21). What is needed now is not a mere technical switching but a new industrial and social revolution, a radical change in how we live and work. Here, in spite of the increasing sense of urgency and crisis (to which the CCC pays lip service), the report seems to reflect and reinforce the complacency that is still widespread among the general population.

The report sees carbon capture and storage (CCS) as ‘a necessity not an option’ (pp23, 34, 178, 197). Indeed, the report seems to see CCS as a bit of a panacea, mentioning it no less than 273 times. Admittedly, CCS may well be necessary in the future because even if net zero GHG is achieved we will still have to find ways of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The problem here, however, is cost, with the report recognising that CCS is ‘expensive’ (pp131, 253). However, the report does not seem to appreciate just how expensive CCS is likely to be or that long-suffering citizens would have to foot the bill for it. The report acknowledges that ‘global progress has been slow’ (p12) but does not ask why that has been the case (answer: because there is no profit in it!). When it comes to CCS, the CCC’s claims to being conservative seem to be abandoned – for example, ‘the amount of CCS for energy generation from fossil fuels could be significantly lower than we have assumed’ (p197). Although it acknowledges that direct air CCS requires significant energy input (p149), the implications of a large energy input being required for CCS generally are not considered anywhere in the report. One might conclude that it would be more sensible to focus on eliminating GHG emissions in the first place, but that would mean confronting the likes of Shell, Exxon and Drax. So, rather than preventing the horse from bolting, the CCC would seem to prefer to close the door afterwards, thereby assuming reversibility of climate impacts.

In the Technical Report that accompanies the main report, there is further detail on technologies for greenhouse gas removal (pp275-286). Here afforestation and peatland restoration are no-brainers, and timber-framed construction also sounds eminently sensible, provided that the wood used does not entail further GHG releases. However, the discussion of bioenergy doesn’t really explain where the bioenergy is to come from, so the reader is entitled to be sceptical. Again, there would appear to be an over-reliance on technical solutions, with little thought given to the social and political implications of what is being proposed (e.g. changes in land ownership, land use planning, changes in farming practices, and so on).

The report is ambiguous or ambivalent on aviation. For example, it sees a scenario for net zero as involving ‘more limited aviation demand growth’ (p23). So the CCC still envisages increasing aviation demand, just not at the same rate as now. The emissions resulting from this increased demand will have to be offset by reductions elsewhere – there is a suggestion on p29 and p35 that the aviation industry could pay for the removal of all its emissions, resulting in a corresponding increase in air fares. So presumably the CCC envisages that demand will fall (or grow more slowly) as prices rise. However, it seems clear that the government is already committed to significant aviation demand growth, what with the agreed third runway at Heathrow and the expansion of provincial airports, so the government must be making a big mistake here, which the report does not recognise.

Given the recognised high costs (p179) of building wind and solar farms, and of building and running CCS (estimated at £10-20 billion in 2050 – p29) and hydrogen installations, it is difficult to understand why the CCC can have ‘reasonable confidence’ that ‘costs are likely to be no more than a very small fraction of annual GDP’ (p26). Costs could of course be lower in the future – but they could just as well be higher.

Nuclear power is hardly mentioned at all but I would assume that the statement that ‘overall [electricity] bills need not rise as a result of climate policy’ (p29) rules out the possibility of relying more on nuclear power because it is clearly more expensive than either fossil fuels or renewable energy (see p253). Notwithstanding this, the government is ploughing ahead with Hinckley Point C, and more nuclear power plants are still in the pipeline at Sizewell C and Bradwell B.

P26 states that diet change and major land use changes are needed for a net zero target. But what, exactly – and what part can government play in this?

Overall, in spite of much rhetoric about developing ‘stronger approaches’ (p34), the report’s substantive recommendations to government could be (and need to be) a lot stronger.

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