Is There A Plan to Get to Zero Carbon for the UK?

In August 2021, the simple answer is NO, however the Centre for Alternative Technology in 2019 published its Zero Carbon Britain report, which sets out an actionable / ambitious but achievable plan to get to zero carbon by 2030. This is the plan that we think makes most sense as it doesn’t rely on technologies which have still to be invented, it puts forward a balanced programme of power down activities combined with power up activities and changes in land use.

The CAT ZCB contrasts with government’s current actions by deviating from “business as usual” by accepting the need for significant changes our behaviours, whereas the UK government’s policies rely on electric vehicles to allow us to carrying on driving just the same (possible), all fly just as much as a few of us do now (magic fuel tree?/unproven), and consume/buy as much as we like (not sustainable without 100% circular products). However, even governments’ are moving in the direction of CAT ZCB as they realise that they can not achieve zero carbon with “business as usual”, for example in July 2021 the UK Government has received the independent new UK Food Strategy which talks about the need to reduce meat consumption by 33%.

In August 2021 the UK Government has not yet adopted a plan to get to zero carbon, however the UK Government is promising the Net Zero Strategy in the run-up to November’s Glasgow COP26. While the National Audit Office in July 2021 used its governement requested report “Net zero and local government in England” to point out that current actions are nowhere near sufficient to reach the targets set in UK law.

The UK Government has already committed to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and enshrined in law 78% reduction by 2035. There have been many policies/plans and some government actions aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). However, there are also many government actions which are increasing GHGs emissions – new roads, new runways, new oil exploration, removal of legislation to require low energy houses and almost a new coal mine. There is no single plan or even a single government department that is coordinating all these activities, but in 2008 the Climate Change Act established the Committee on Climate Change to keep score, partly by seeing whether current progress is sufficient to get to net zero by 2050 and 22% by 2035 – the CCC Pathway.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is charged with reporting on how the UK is doing on the road to net zero carbon. The picture can look quite good if you plot the decrease in UK carbon emissions and the increase in UK domestic product between 1990 and 2018, but……

Committee on Climate Change

Obviously such a relationship would be great we can just grow our economy out of the problem of carbon emissions however the reality is a bit different, you could even say we haven’t yet really reduced our carbon emissions. The figure below shows that the biggest decreases in carbon emissions were from electricity generation and from business, both of these reductions were largely from one off actions which can’t be repeated. For energy the change from coal to natural gas resulted in the majority of the decrease, with the shift to renewable energy helping too. For business shifting our manufacturing to South East Asia removed all emissions from manufacturing in the UK – the CCC reckons that our fair share of international travel and manufacturing of goods used in the UK are equivalent to 40% of annual UK GHGs emissions in 2018.

UK emissions by sector
Committee on Climate Change

Transport, residential and agriculture related emissions have been largely flat. While cars are becoming more efficient, the number has increased, SUVs have replaced hatchbacks, delivery trucks have proliferated and the shift to public transport has been limited. New houses are still not as energy efficient as they could be and little has been done to improve the energy efficiency of our existing housing.

In the CCC’s June 2021 Progress Report to parliament it is stated on page 58 that “progress outside the power sector has been limited. If annual changes in emissions return to the same per-sector trend as the previous decade, the Sixth Carbon Budget will be missed a huge margin. Now is the time to extend progress across all sectors of the economy.” The figure below from CCC’s June 2021 Progress Report shows how without an integrated plan that sufficient actions are not happening, meaning that now the UK is not on the path we need to be on to achieve net zero by 2050.

Committee on Climate Change

Action is needed in all of these areas, as the targets for each area are already ambitious, for example we can’t continue flying as now and just install more heat pumps, there aren’t enough houses to do this.

The UK needs an integrated plan that gets the UK to zero carbon as soon as possible, the plan needs to be actionable now and not rely on technologies that are yet to be developed. It is important to act now to reduce carbon emissions in the UK and so we favour the implementation of the Centre for Alterative Technologies Zero Carbon Britain plan. Hopefully, the Net Zero Strategy will be focused strongly on activities which are possible now, rather than rely on the development of untested technologies.

In summary the UK has reasonable ambitions, no integrated plans and actions to reduce GHG emissions are outweigh by “business as usual” actions. It is only positive actions which result in real reduction in GHGs emissions that count.

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