In 2019, the UK, as advised by the country’s independent climate advisory body, the Climate Change Committee, became the first major world economy to set a target for net zero emissions by 2050. How can the UK reach carbon neutrality by this date?
Carbon neutrality refers chiefly to balancing carbon dioxide emissions, the most prevalent and dangerous of the GHGs, accounting for 81% of the total GHG emissions of the UK in 2019. Therefore it is paramount that carbon neutrality is reached in the steps to this goal. Indeed, the current levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere reached 419 parts per million in May, 50% higher than the beginning of the industrial revolution.
Where do carbon emissions primarily come from? Dr. Jaise Kuriakose, lecturer in climate change at the University of Manchester, said in an interview with the BBC that “it’s mainly human activities where carbon emissions come from. The heating at homes and offices and the electricity used in that. Then there’s transport and the burning of petrol and diesel involved in travelling on a train or aviation or the shipping of goods that we buy. Industrial processes produce carbon emissions too, such as steel production.”
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The Current State of Affairs
The country is currently on the path to reducing carbon emissions, although there is a lot of work to do. In 2019 (the latest data available) UK net emissions of carbon dioxide were estimated to be 351.5 million tonnes (Mt), 3.9% lower than 2018 (365.7 Mt). Much of this can be attributed to the gradual move away from coal and towards renewable energy sources. However, the UK is engaged in a multilateral fight towards climate change: while pledging to reduce carbon emissions, the government abandoned the Green Homes Grant for home insulation and went forward with an airport expansion and a £27 billion roads budget. The former will increase the already detrimental levels of airplane-induced carbon emissions, while the latter will cause traffic and harmful emissions to soar even further. The CCC has stated that if policy is not scaled up in every sector in the current decade, the 2050 goal will be far from reach.
Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband stated in an interview with the BBC that “we need a government that treats the climate emergency as the emergency it is. That means greater ambition than this government matched with much more decisive action.”
So more generally then, what are the main methods to achieving carbon neutrality?
- Carbon offsetting: Safely removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to offset emissions elsewhere, thereby reaching net zero levels of carbon.
- Emission reduction: The transition towards a post-carbon economy, where renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro, solar, and geothermal power are used in place of non-renewable energy sources such as minerals and fossil fuels.
One thing to keep in mind is that carbon offsetting is effective only to a limited extent, and draws attention away from any impactful legislation directly reducing carbon emissions. As Greenpeace aptly states, “offsetting projects simply don’t deliver what we need – a reduction in the carbon emissions entering the atmosphere. Instead, they are a distraction from the real solutions to climate change.” Therefore, emission reduction should be focussed on chiefly in order to reach a state of carbon neutrality.
A simple yet effective way the general public can do their part to contribute to carbon neutrality is through the transition towards electrically-powered public transportation such as trains and trams, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere.
As for the government, the CCC in their June 2020 advice and December 2020 aviation report to the Prime Minister suggested six policy solutions that can be adopted to further work towards this goal in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Planting more trees: “investing in nature” would allow for not only more job creation, but also through its effective absorption of carbon dioxide, can contribute significantly to the offset of carbon emissions
- Retrofitting buildings with low-carbon systems: Renovating buildings and homes with high water and energy efficiency and instigating the transition towards low-carbon heating systems and insulation would significantly reduce carbon emissions (presently accounting for an alarming 20% of total carbon emissions). This initiative can begin almost immediately with the approval of “green passports” for buildings and more widely for local area energy plans.
- Consolidation of energy networks: The government needs to act on its presently-existing regulatory means to initiate private sector investment into the electrification of transport and heating, allowing for a net-zero carbon energy transformation. Additionally, initiating new hydrogen and carbon capture storage (CCS) infrastructure will facilitate the establishment of new, low-carbon industries. The fast-tracked construction of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations will also accelerate the transition out of gas and diesel vehicles by 2032.
- Development of infrastructure to encourage walking, cycling and remote working: By establishing dedicated lanes for walking and cycling, along with parking spaces for shared bikes and e-scooters, nation-wide commuting can be more sustainable and carbon-neutral. With remote work to increase in prevalence, more reliable 5G and broadband will be required- itself also being highly beneficial in the path towards carbon neutrality, as 5G linked with IoT (internet of things), will improve the energy efficiency of homes, networks, and buildings, overall cutting energy consumption down in cities. Ericcson, a leading telecommunications company as a result, estimates that the move to IoT could reduce carbon emissions by 15 percent, by 2030.
- The transition towards a circular economy: Reusing and recycling must increase rapidly along with preventing the delivery of biodegradable waste to landfills. Instead, local authorities must be supported to invest in the recycling of infrastructure and compartmentalised waste collection.
- Changes to the aviation industry: accounting for 7% of the UK’s GHG emissions in 2018, the aviation industry must see changes in its demand management, aircraft efficiency and use of sustainable fuel (such as biofuels and synthetic jet fuels) in place of fossil jet fuel.
These goals are certainly attainable and are well within the government’s grasp. Moving forward however, the main challenge that faces meaningful legislation being enacted is the role that profit and business plays in the most carbon-inefficient industries. With Heathrow and British Petrol for example, carbon offsetting is often used as a deflection to divert attention away from the way they run their businesses. However, if a full transition to carbon neutrality is to be realised by 2050 and more widely a deceleration of global climate change, then there must be serious reconsiderations made regarding profit over planet and a complete reformation of businesses such as those.
Featured image by: Flickr