Net-zero and the climate emergency

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How did the net-zero report come about?

In October 2018 the UK and devolved governments asked their independent expert advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), to review long-term emissions reduction targets as a result of 2015’s Paris Agreement and the more recent Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.

The Paris Agreement seeks to limit global warming to “well below” 2°C and to “pursue efforts” to limit the increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The Special Report lays out, in stark terms, the risks that would be avoided by keeping warming to below 1.5°C compared to higher levels, and the need for deep and rapid emissions reductions to do so.

In short, the governments wanted to know when emissions could be reduced to “net-zero”, and how this might be done. Net-zero is the point where the emission and absorption of greenhouse gases (e.g. through tree planting) are balanced.

This request was made whilst the Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee was scrutinising the general principles (Stage 1) of the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill. The Bill sets a 2050 emissions reduction target of 90% (relative to a 1990 baseline) and allows for a target of 100% (net-zero) to be created at a future date.

What does the report say?

Today (2 May 2019), the CCC published this advice. It recognises that “Scotland has greater potential to remove pollution from its economy than the UK overall and can credibly adopt a more ambitious target”. This is because “its large land area […] can be used for carbon sequestration [storing carbon], both through afforestation [increased planting] and through use of sustainable Scottish bioenergy [energy crops] combined with carbon capture and storage, with the CO2 being stored off the Scottish coast”, the CCC therefore recommends that:

“Scotland legislates now for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, contingent on the UK adopting our recommended 2050 net-zero GHG target.”

Interim targets of 70% by 2030 and 90% by 2040 are also recommended (1990 baseline).

The concepts of “equity” and “capability” are embedded into these recommended targets:

  • Equity because the UK has a high-income economy with a significant carbon footprint from imported goods, as well as substantial historical emissions dating back to the industrial revolution, estimated at 2-3% of human induced warming to date.
  • Capability because UK per capita emissions are close to the global average and falling, whilst worldwide emissions are rising. The UK has legislation and policies to tackle emissions and a track record of policy development in key sectors.

How can we get to net-zero?

Predicting accurately how behaviours will have to change and technologies evolve in the next 30 years is not possible. However, a series of scenarios are proposed, including:

  • Resource and energy efficiency through a significantly reduced demand for energy across the economy.
  • Societal choices leading to reduced demand for carbon-intensive activities like beef, lamb and dairy farming.
  • Extensive electrification of transport and heating supported by a major expansion of renewable and other low-carbon power generation. This would involve doubling electricity demand, with all power produced from low-carbon sources.
  • Developing a hydrogen economy for industrial processes, long-distance HGVs and ships, and for electricity and heating in peak periods.
  • Carbon capture and storage in industry, with bioenergy (for emissions removal from the atmosphere), and for hydrogen and electricity production is considered to be a necessity, not an option.
  • Significant farm and land use changes (enabled by healthier diets and food waste reductions) to emphasise carbon sequestration and biomass production. A fifth of UK agricultural land is expected to have to shift to tree planting, energy crops and peatland restoration.

Taken together, these measures are expected to reduce UK emissions by around 95% by 2050. The remaining emissions “would require some use of options that currently appear more speculative”, including:

  • greater shifts in diet and land use
  • more limited aviation demand growth
  • large contribution from emerging technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere (e.g. ‘direct air capture’)
  • successful development of a major supply of carbon-neutral synthetic fuels

Key obstacles are also highlighted, and ways to overcome them, including:

  • Strengthening policy making to embed and integrate emissions reduction across all government departments, and at all levels.
  • Ensuring business responds with strict enforcement of standards, and well-designed incentive schemes.
  • Engaging the public to act will be vital. People should understand why and what changes are needed, to see a benefit from making low carbon choices.
  • Determining who pays, by HM Treasury undertaking a review of how the transition will be funded and where costs will fall.
  • Providing the skills, particularly in areas where there are gaps e.g. designers, builders and installers of low carbon heating.
  • Developing or enhancing infrastructure for electricity, hydrogen and transport.

What role does Scotland play?

In Scotland, significant emphasis is placed on “additional afforestation, peatland restoration and/or ‘engineered’ greenhouse gas removals” meaning that the CCC is “confident that Scotland could feasibly achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2045”.

By 2050, under the most ambitious scenario, Scotland can “reach a reduction of between 104% and 110% on 1990 emissions (i.e. removals would be greater than emissions)”. The following figure shows an indicative pathway for Scottish emissions, assuming the most ambitious scenario, and a straight trajectory:


Costs and benefits?

Many of the changes that are required “involve no or only limited additional costs”. If there are no major cost breakthroughs, the CCC estimates an increased annual cost of around 1-2% of UK GDP by 2050. However, these costs must be distributed fairly, and “finding the most effective ways to limit costs and provide funding will be fundamental to success”. Scotland’s newly formed Just Transition Commission is highlighted.

More detail will be available once HM Treasury has undertaken its review of how the transition will be funded and where costs will fall. However, given the risks of warming of above 1.5°C, the costs of not acting are considered to be significantly higher.

Significant benefits (including avoided costs), are improved quality of life, benefits to human health (and savings to the NHS), improved environmental quality, and industrial opportunities for low-carbon technologies.

What now?

Assuming the UK Government accepts these recommendations, which it is expected to do, and following the First Minister’s declaration of a climate emergency at the SNP conference last weekend, amendments are expected to be brought forward at Stage 2 of the Scottish Climate Change Bill next month.

The CCC will give evidence on their report to ECCLR Committee on Tuesday 14 May.

Greta Thunberg reminds us that our house is on fire. Notwithstanding the gargantuan effort that has gone into writing the report, the easy part is over. If they want to deliver on the targets in the report, the UK and devolved governments must now put climate change mitigation at the heart of their work to ensure that credible policies are implemented to extinguish the blaze.

Alasdair Reid, Senior Researcher; Energy, Climate Change and Land Reform