The road to net zero emissions – what does it mean for us?

By Lydia Newman

The energy performance of our buildings is likely to become more crucial than ever before.

According to Chris Stark, the CEO of the Committee of Climate Change (CCC), it is expected that there are approximately 30 million buildings that must be fully decarbonised. In coherence with the requirements of the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit the global average temperature to below 2°C, the CCC has reported on the feasibility of setting an ambitious target for the UK to reach net-zero for greenhouse gases by 2050. The target has now been enshrined into UK law as part of the Climate Change Act 2008.


What is meant by Net- Zero?

It is important that we strive to effectively eliminate 100% of greenhouse gases (GHG), including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases (HFCs, PFCs, SF6, NF3).

In 2008, an 80% target was established, however this has increased with the importance of the project and evidence suggests it would cost very little more to increase the aim to 100%.

Evidence also states that long-lived emissions such as carbon must be completely eradicated, whereas short-lived emissions such as methane must be stabilized. Thus, the sum of both long-lived and short-lived emissions is expected to be reduced by 97%, relative to 1990 levels.


Why have UK targets been set so high?


The industrial revolution began in the UK and as a result, it is responsible for 2-3% of human induced global warming, despite making up only 1% of the population. Therefore, being one of the larger historical contributors to climate change, the UK’s ambition and responsibility seeks to mitigate its environmental impact. Moreover, the UK’s status as a climate leader would be enhanced and encourage other developed countries to pursue this with great initiative. 

Within the UK, adjustments have been made to targets in order to comply with the condition of particular countries. For instance, Scotland, seeks to reach net-zero by 2045, with incremental targets of 70% reduction by 2030 and 90% by 2040. Evidence supports that this is because Scotland has a higher relative capacity to remove emissions, since there is more land per person than in the rest of the UK. It is the best location for Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture Storage (BECCS) plants. 

By contrast, Wales would have difficulty reaching net-zero by 2050 because it is difficult to reduce the relatively high agricultural emissions. Therefore it has been recommended that 95% of GHGs are reduced by 2050, comparative to 1990. Carbon dioxide should be at net-zero whereas the remaining 5% emissions will be methane. 


What measures are needed to achieve this? 


In order to reduce CO2 emissions, it is essential that 20% of agricultural land must shift to alternative uses, for example natural carbon removals such as afforestation, biomass production and peatland restoration. Carbon Capture and Storage is a safe, cheap and sensible measure to undertake, imperative towards the objective to reach net-zero. Once carbon is captured it will be returned to the North sea; piped down back into the geology to remain untouched. The North Sea is easily accessible from Scotland where there are disused oil and gas fields that ironically, can be adapted for CCS. 

Other measures include the following: 

  • Electric vehicles
  • Energy efficient Buildings
  • Diversion of biodegradable waste from landfill
  • Increased afforestation and measures to reduce emissions of farms 
  • Low-carbon Electricity (must quadruple supply by 2050)
  • Low-carbon heating
  • Phase out of fluorinated gases


Which changes will be needed for buildings?

The Government is yet to produce action plans to meet the challenge, but the task will be huge. Today, only 4.5% of our heating systems are low carbon, therefore targets have been set for this percentage to increase to 90% by 2050. Our first step towards this is for all heating system replacements for existing buildings to be low-carbon or ready for hydrogen by 2030.  

Most buildings will need to be retro fitted with energy efficiency measures, including improved insulation, reduced air leakage and low carbon building services. At this stage, it is assumed that all buildings will require a band ‘A’ energy performance certificate rating, a considerable increase from the Government’s current aspiration that buildings achieve band ‘C’ by 2030. 

Eliminating energy waste from the operation of buildings will be a considerable task. Energy efficiency is often described as the ‘third fuel’ and within commercial buildings, the most effective method of managing energy use is by using an ISO50001 energy management system. A key component of ISO50001 is continual improvement.


What are the consequences of not urgently controlling average global temperatures?


If we do not act with urgency against climate change we put ourselves at risk of enduring climate extremes, we put animals in danger of extinction and we advocate the irreversible destruction of the ecosystems that we rely upon. 

By maintaining the average global temperature below 2°C, the probability of an ice-free Arctic summer is reduced to 1 in 10, in comparison to 1 in 2 if the average temperature were to reach 3°C. Furthermore, if the average global temperature is kept between 1.5-2°C, it is expected that 420 million fewer people will suffer from extreme heat waves. 


What are the advantages of reaching net-zero? 


The ultimate aim is to terminate our contribution towards rising global temperatures. Our efforts to combat global warming will encourage improved health benefits, cleaner air, a healthier lifestyle with reference to diet and travel. 

Clean growth will offer new economic opportunities and our ability to progress in allegiance with the Paris agreement will give the UK more credibility. With the exception of France, the UK is the only country to currently plan to reach net zero without use of international credits and covering international aviation and shipping. There is also an opportunity for electricity bills to become cheaper as we constitute superior use of renewable resources – currently only 50% of power is generated by low-carbon sources. 

The risk of flooding would also be lowered, which in turn would reduce the cost of adaption and there would be a reduced risk of the cost of food rising due to limited resources.

Can I contribute positively?


By making beneficial choices for the environment we tend to develop a healthier lifestyle; such as by choosing to walk, cycle or use public transport instead of driving. We can also choose to eat a healthier diet, eliminate waste, use peat free compost. We can choose to buy long-lasting products to reduce waste. Reduce, re-use, recycle wherever possible and choose to share items we do not use on a regular basis, for example power tools, lawnmowers.

Make the decision to update to an electric car, and help sustain the aim for electric cars to be cheaper than conventional cars in 2030. It is expected that the annual UK transport costs could be reduced by £5 billion due to the considerable savings in running costs. This is dependent on whether targets for all new cars and vans to be electric or use a low-carbon, hydrogen substitute, are met by 2035. Transport tax contribution will go towards charging points for this innovative scheme. 


Is it possible?


Current progress states that between 1990 and 2018 greenhouse gas emissions have reduced by 40% with positive effects on the economy, as GDP increased by over 70%. 

Chris Stark states that although reaching Net-Zero by 2050 will be highly challenging it is also an affordable and pragmatic solution. The UK has the potential to positively impact the issue of climate change. If we each contribute effectively, especially regarding our homes, our progress as a nation could be astounding.


What’s next?


The next step is for Government to create firm action plans regarding each of the following sectors: 

  • Agriculture
  • Aviation and Shipping
  • Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
  • Housing and domestic heat
  • Industrial emissions
  • Road transport

When plans are confirmed, the UK has the potential to exemplify the capability of becoming experts in developing and operating new carbon removal technologies, be pioneers of the new industries and technologies that net zero will call for, and increase our integrity as climate leaders. 


Reference: Committee on Climate Change (2019) Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming, London: .Gov

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