New study from WWF suggests net zero emissions by 2045 is possible for the UK - provided changes in industry, energy and lifestyle roll out nationwide
The UK government's official climate advisors currently have their heads down working out a strategy for the UK to reach net zero emissions - a strategy they will present to ministers next year amidst hopes it could trigger a surge of fresh climate ambition at the highest levels of government.
The assumption had been any net zero goal would build on the existing Climate Change Act's target of 80 per cent emissions cut by 2050 and set the samemid-century deadline. But the wording of the government's letter to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) asks for a recommendation on what "range" emissions should be in by 2050, opening the door for an earlier target for achieving net zero status.
And for many experts 2050 is already starting to look outdated as a target for achieving net zero emissions in the UK. After all, as the argument sparked by the recent IPCC report on how to avoid more than 1.5C of warming goes, if the global economy needs to be net zero by 2050, surely an industrialised nation like the UK - already a climate leader - should move ahead of the pack and become a decarbonising trail-blazer for others to follow?
But what would moving faster than 2050 look like? Is net zero emissions before then even possible for an economy like the UK?
A ground-breaking new report released today suggests such a target is feasible, but will require sweeping changes to almost every aspect of life in the UK and a serious amount of international co-operation on issues such as aviation emissions to get there.
Yet the paper, commissioned by WWF and compiled by Vivid Economics, promises the extra effort will be rewarded with an opportunity for the UK to demonstrate its global leadership in tackling climate change, cementing its status as a pioneer in international decarbonisation, annd unlocking major new low carbon industrial opportunities in the process.
"The IPCC, the United Nations climate change experts, recently stated that to prevent the most catastrophic climate change the whole world must be zero carbon by 2050," said Ed Matthew, coordinator of the Net-Zero Campaign for The Climate Coalition group of NGOs.
He called the report a "beacon of hope" that showed how "there is a pathway for total decarbonisation which is feasible, fast and packed full of economic opportunity. If the UK government commits to this goal, we can inspire the world to follow".
To reach net zero by 2045 the UK will need to bring its emissions down to zero in several sectors, including power and buildings - a task the paper notes is possible with established technologies but will still require a "significant" increase on current rates of clean tech deployment.
Meanwhile, echoing the conclusions of the Energy Transitions Commission report earlier this week, so-called 'hard to treat' sectors such as heavy industry must still deliver "deep cuts" in emissions. Under the WWF plan, shipping, for instance, must cut its emissions by at least 70 per cent by mid-century, while industy must cut its emissions by 90 per cent. There can also be no additional growth in aviation emissions from today's levels, the report stresses.
Alongside the deep cuts in emissions from almost every sector of the economy, a large rollout of 'greenhouse gas removal' options, from afforestation to carbon capture technology, will also be essential, the paper points out. The UK will need the capacity to remove at least 100 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere per year to hit net zero, it says, which will include the conversion of around six per cent of agricultural land to bioenergy crop production and levels of tree planting never before seen in the UK.
Doing all this on the domestic front would deliver net zero emissions in the UK by 2050, the paper concludes. But even this level of ambition has "little margin for error" the report warns, assuming the maximum feasible emission reductions and greenhouse gas removal across all sectors.
"Nearly all feasible emissions reductions must be realised across all sectors, with little scope for delay," it warns. "In the long term, emission reductions will likely be increasingly difficult as relatively easy mitigation opportunities are exhausted. To maintain momentum, continuous government support will be required, across all sectors."
Getting to net zero by the even more ambitious target date of 2045 will require all of the above, plus the UK reaching out beyond its borders to collaborate with other countries on more ambitious decarbonisation projects. For instance, countries would need to collectively work together to deliver more ambition on international aviation and work together to bring the costs down for emerging technologies such as direct air capture with carbon storage.
And then there is the politically-vexed issue of lifestyle changes amongst the general public, without which meeting the 2045 target date becomes increasingly unlikely. A change in diet, away from red meat and towards more plant-based eating, would be necessary to meet the 2045 deadline, the report argues. Halving UK meat consumption could save roughly 10 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent, the paper points out, reducing the burden of emissions cuts on farmers.
Given these measures are outside of the direct control of the UK government, the feasibility of delivering the additional actions is difficult to assess, the report admits. But Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate change at WWF UK, insisted a 2045 target date is both necessary and possible provided other nations are willing to co-operate.
"Climate change is threatening life on our planet, and the time for action is now," he said. "The good news is, we now know that what needs to be done, can be done. Cutting the UK's emissions by 2045 is an opportunity for the UK to show global leadership on tackling climate change. But the UK cannot fight for our world alone. We need a global deal for nature, to unite action for climate, nature and people. We must take the first step towards this by committing to end our contribution to climate change as soon as possible. Our report shows that we can do this by 2045."
We will have to wait until next year to see whether Vivid Economics' conclusions chime with those of the CCC. But it's clear that a broad vision for what a net zero Britain could look like is starting to fall in to place, built on the wide-scale and rapid deployment of green technologies, the carbon benefits of a thriving natural environment, and a large cohort of citizens willing to adjust their everyday behaviours in order to curb their carbon footprint.
Getting to net zero by 2045 would confirm the UK's place in history as a climate pioneer and unlock massive new green export markets - but the irony is it won't be possible without greater ambition around the world.
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