What would it take to reach net zero before 2050 in the UK?

Radical changes to the way we live our lives alongside new technologies could – with an added dose of good luck – see us hit net zero emissions a few years before 2050, the UK’s top climate adviser tells Daisy Dunne

Saturday 09 January 2021 18:36
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<p>The current UK target is to plant 30,000 hectares of forest a year</p>

The current UK target is to plant 30,000 hectares of forest a year

The UK made history in 2019 when it became the first major economy to set a legal target of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Meeting the target will require far-reaching change to all corners of British life, from what we eat to the cars we drive.

The pledge, made by former prime minister Theresa May on the advice of the country’s independent climate experts, was soon followed by similar targets from other big economies such as the EU and Japan in 2020. China, the world’s largest emitter, also set a target for “carbon neutrality” – though for a later date of 2060. Meeting these pledges will be key to tackling the climate crisis, scientists say.

But in the UK, some environmental campaign groups have been critical of the 2050 target. Extinction Rebellion has called for the country to aim for an earlier date of 2035 to 2040, while Friends of the Earth’s chief executive, Craig Bennett, has said that the target is “too slow”.

“We were stunned by the criticism from some quarters about the target lacking ambition,” Chris Stark, chief executive of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the UK’s independent climate advisers, tells The Independent. “We all felt in the CCC that the net zero advice was very ambitious.”

The criticism spurred the CCC into coming up with new analysis to explore whether reaching net zero before 2050 would be a physical possibility, Stark says.

Analysis from the CCC shows that it, in theory, the UK could get to net zero as early as 2042. But this could only occur if a tough list of requirements are met. For example, people would need to eat far less meat and dairy and fly less frequently, and technologies that are currently still in their early stages of development would need to be drastically scaled up, Stark explains.

“The kind of thing you’d need to see if you were to get an earlier than 2050 net zero date is much more diet change,” he says. “We would need a 50 per cent reduction in meat and dairy consumption by 2050. We would have to be reducing our demand for flying by 15 per cent compared to what it was pre-pandemic.

“We would need to see uptake of new technologies right across the economy. We’d need to switch over to electric vehicles by 2030. This is part of the prime minister’s current climate plan but he’s allowing hybrids out until 2035, we wouldn’t be able to have that in that scenario.”

In addition, the UK would need to heavily scale up its ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, he says. For example, the UK would need to plant 70,000 hectares of forest each year from 2035. The government’s current target is to plant 30,000 hectares of forest a year – a target it is still far away from achieving.

“We’d have to have the maximum possible greenhouse gas removals in this scenario, including commercial-scale ‘direct air capture’,” he says. Direct air capture is a technology still in the early stages of development for removing CO2 straight from thin air.

“We’ve got fans actually sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere,” Stark says. “So it is really stretching the limits of feasibility.”

People in the UK will need to consume less dairy if emissions are to decline

For the net zero target to be reached before 2050, the policies to bring about such large-scale changes would need to work first time – leaving no room for missteps, he adds.

The CCC explored the feasibility of reaching net zero before 2050 as part of its latest report for the government, which was released in December.

The report sets out four possible future pathways for how the UK might get to net zero, which vary in their assumptions about the level of future lifestyle change and technological innovation in the UK.  

The CCC drew from all four scenarios, including the highly ambitious scenario where the country hits net zero by 2042, to come up with its recommendations for how the UK should reach net zero emissions.

The CCC recommends that the UK should take rapid action across all sectors of the economy in order to meet net zero by 2050. 

Aiming for 2050 rather than an earlier date will still require major changes to British life, says Stark. For example, the CCC says that meat and dairy consumption will need to fall by 35 per cent by 2050 in its recommended pathway. 

Targeting 2050 rather than an earlier date also allows a small amount of breathing space to account for the possibility that policies introduced to cut emissions may not be an immediate success, he adds.

“The key point in our analysis is that the next decade is the critical phase,” says Stark. “In our assessment, we’re looking for the highest possible ambition across all of the sectors, but we’re also allowing for the fact that not everything will work every time.”

It is worth noting that current government policies, including those from Boris Johnson’s recent 10-point climate plan, will not be enough to reach net zero by 2050, he says. 

“We’re going to have to see a hell of a lot of new policy,” says Stark. The UK has until June to respond to the recommendations set out by the CCC in its latest report. It is widely expected that the government will announce new green policies in the coming months in a bid to show leadership before it hosts a major climate summit in Glasgow in November.

The CCC will continue to track the UK’s progress towards reaching its net zero target over the coming months and years, says Stark.

“We’ll continue to look at the question in future about whether you can go faster to cut emissions than what we’re currently proposing,” he adds.

“If I were speaking to the green community I’d be championing early action rather than new target dates. Because it’s that early action that could open up the opportunity to get to net zero sooner.”

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