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Towards Zero Carbon

The UK’s zero-carbon emissions target for 2050 is a huge ambition, and the Government will need to be transparent about the practicalities, says Mike Reid.

Theresa May's government did a brave thing last June last when it committed the uK to becoming a net-zero economy by 2050.

By law, within 30 years we must either balance greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions completely with carbon dioxide removal in order to mitigate global warming, or eliminate carbon emissions altogether – forever.

It’s an ambitious target and seemingly one with little or no “wiggle room”. On February 27 we got a taste of how hard it would be to water down this commitment when the Court of Appeal ruled the Westminster Government’s decision to allow Heathrow airport to build a third runway was illegal as it contravened its Paris Agreement commitments. This was a clear judicial signal to the Government – if you commit to environmental targets, you cannot act in a way that compromises them without risking intervention. And the courts aren’t the only ones limiting choices on protecting the environment.

The UK is making progress in reducing carbon, the biggest GHG component (the others being methane, nitrous oxide, hydro-fluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, nitrogen trifluoride and sulphur hexafluoride). The country’s greenhouse gas emissions fell for a seventh consecutive year in 2019, according to provisional data from the Government – a 3.6% fall from 2018 and almost 28% from 2010.

A key factor was the shift in the energy sector away from coal power towards gas and renewables such as wind and solar power. Last year, the share of electricity generation by renewables increased to a record 36.9%. The increase helped to push lowcarbon electricity, including nuclear power, to a record 54.2% share of the generation mix, up from 52.6% in 2018. Meanwhile the world's wind power grew by almost a fifth last year after a boom in offshore projects.

In 2018, the UK’s CO2 emissions fell to an estimated 361 million tonnes (MtCO2), according to the environmental website Carbon Brief. But it was the smallest fall in the six-year series, suggesting targeted reductions could become harder to achieve.

One factor influencing GHG reduction will be exporting factory output. Britain started the Industrial Revolution and led the world in engineering and manufacturing, but from shipbuilding to vehicle building, the lion’s share of this activity has moved abroad.

On March 9 the Government announced the sale of British Steel to Jingye Group, “safeguarding over 3,200 jobs in Scunthorpe, Skinningrove and on Teesside”. While the Chinese company has made reassurances over keeping jobs in the UK, such guarantees don’t last forever. Should the worst happen and capacity move offshore, the Government could hardly include in its targets CO2 emissions relocated abroad, rather than reduced in the UK.

Similarly, Britain reportedly exports some two thirds of the plastic packaging it collects for recycling, much of it to Asian countries often blamed for plastic pollution of the seas. Amid all the ugly photos of stricken sealife, plastic is a form of fossil fuel and one with a big carbon footprint. Water bottles, grocery bags and foam trays are made from oil or natural gas, requiring a lot of energy to produce. Malaysia received 105,000 tonnes in the 12 months to October 2018— 68 per cent up on the previous 12 months.The country has begun returning plasticwaste illegally shipped from Britain and insists it won’t be a dumping ground for rich westerners. In recent months it returned 150 containers of plastic waste – 3,700 tonnes – 42 ofthem to Britain.

The net-zero target has been derided by sceptics such as climate-change deniers and those balking at the likely cost – estimated at £1 trillion by then Chancellor Philip Hammond last year. Others point out that Britain is responsible for only 1% of global emissions, or that China and India are forging ahead with the building of airports and coal-burning power plants.

On the other hand, the widespread feeling that firm action is needed to protect the planet is heightened by increasingly frequent storms and flooding in the UK and devastating fires elsewhere. And the Government believes its net-zero target could help to push Britain, already a major participant in what could be called environmental enterprise, to lead the way in creating two million “green-collar” jobs and grow exports from the low-carbon economy to £170 billion a year by 2030.

The net-zero approach was recommended by the Committee on Climate Change, the UK’s independent climate advisory body, made up of the great and good. Considering the potential cost and disruption involved, ministers must be determined in achieving their ground-breaking ambition and scrupulous in the evidence they produce to demonstrate progress. Achieving net carbon zero will be a challenge for the UK but in order to have a significant impact on overall greenhouse gas emissions an agreed global strategy will be required. 



The decision to postpone the COP26 UN climate change conference, which was planned for Glasgow in November, highlights a paradox. The restrictions on movement aimed at fighting the Covid-19 pandemic have not only stopped an international event aimed at fighting climate change – they’ve also led to historic falls in the carbon emissions, pollution and resource depletion increasingly blamed for causing it.

Dates for a rescheduled conference in 2021, hosted in Glasgow by the UK in partnership with Italy, will be set out in due course.

Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned that prepares us better for COP26 when it eventually takes place. When the world’s economies restart, let’s go about our work in a way that uses less energy, burns less fuel and enables us to conserve what we have.