The UK plan for Net zero carbon by 2050

net zero

You will have perhaps seen the various media stories regarding the UK plan to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. I confess that it was a surprise and a delight to see this highlighted by the media, but that is perhaps explained by last Thursday being polling day for local elections. When the polls open, by convention the media has a complete blackout on political stories, so this naturally led the news because it was published the same day. Clearly somebody timed that well.

Key Point: It is not a wholly endorsed plan that will happen

What has actually happened is the publication of a proposal by the government’s official advisers the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). What they had done is to publish a report that demonstrates that Net Zero is possible by 2050 and details exactly how it can be achieved.

That however can be wholly ignored, because unless the politicians actually pick up and start execution of that plan then nothing will happen. The key question is this … do we have the political will to do this?

Friendly tip: If you happen to care about the greatest threat our species has ever faced, then consider voting for Green candidates in the European Parliamentary elections on 23rd May.

What exactly is in the report?

It is perhaps best to bypass the various media reports and go directly to the alpha source, the actual report.

Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming

(There is a pdf of course – 6.8Mb) – sanity warning, 276 pages.

Three key words …

They conclude that net-zero is necessary, feasible and cost-effective.

Necessary – to respond to the overwhelming evidence of the role of greenhouse gases in driving global climate change, and to meet the UK’s commitments as a signatory of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Feasible – because the technologies and approaches that will deliver net-zero are now understood and can be implemented with strong leadership from government.

Cost effective – because falls in the cost of key technologies permit net-zero within the very same costs that were accepted as the likely costs by Parliament in 2008 when it legislated the present 2050 target.


The UK should set and vigorously pursue an ambitious target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) to ‘net-zero’ by 2050, ending the UK’s contribution to global warming within 30 years.

Reflecting their respective circumstances, Scotland should set a net-zero GHG target for 2045 and Wales should target a 95% reduction by 2050 relative to 1990.

What needs to happen?

Parliament must understand that, while many of the policy foundations are in place, a major ramp-up in policy effort is now required.

Most sectors will need to reduce emissions close to zero without offsetting; the target cannot be met by simply adding mass removal of CO2 onto existing plans for the 80% target.

Many current plans are insufficiently ambitious; others are proceeding too slowly.

To be a bit more specific …

  • The UK should legislate as soon as possible to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The target can be legislated as a 100% reduction in greenhouse gases (GHGs) from 1990 and should cover all sectors of the economy, including international aviation and shipping.

  • The aim should be to meet the target through UK domestic effort, without relying on international carbon units (or ‘credits’).

  • This target is only credible if policy to reduce emissions ramps up significantly.

    • ‒  The target can only be delivered with a strengthening of policy to deliver emissions reductions across all levels and departments of government. This will require strong leadership at the heart of Government.

    • ‒  Policies must be designed with businesses and consumers in mind. They must be stable, long-term and investable. The public must be engaged, and other key barriers such as low availability of necessary skills must be addressed.

    • ‒  In this report, we highlight particular priorities where progress has been too slow: low- carbon heating, hydrogen, CCS and agriculture and land use. As well as driving deployment, Government must ensure that the necessary infrastructure is delivered.

  • HM Treasury should undertake a review of how the transition will be funded and where the costs will fall. It should develop a strategy to ensure this is, and is perceived to be, fair. A broader strategy will also be needed to ensure a just transition across society, with vulnerable workers and consumers protected.

  • The UK can benefit from the international influence of setting a bolder target, using it as an opportunity for further positive international collaboration.

  • Wales has less opportunity for CO2 storage and relatively high agricultural emissions that are hard to reduce. On current understanding it could not credibly reach net-zero GHGs by 2050. Wales should set a target for a 95% reduction in emissions by 2050 relative to 1990.

  • Scotland has proportionately greater potential for emissions removal than the UK overall and can credibly adopt a more ambitious target. It should aim for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. Interim targets should be set for Scottish emissions reductions (relative to 1990) of 70% by 2030 and 90% by 2040.

How can the UK reach net-zero GHGs?

What can you as an individual do?

Their scenarios to reduce UK GHG emissions to net-zero point to actions that individuals and households can take to reduce their carbon footprints and contribute to the UK and global goals:

  • The way you travel:

    • ‒  Choose to walk and cycle or take public transport in preference to a car.

    • ‒  Make your next car an electric one, and then charge it ‘smartly’.

    • ‒  Minimise flying, especially long-haul, where possible.

  • In your home:

    • ‒  Improve the energy efficiency of your home (or ask your landlord to) through draught- proofing, improved insulation, choosing LED light-bulbs and appliances with high efficiency ratings.

    • ‒  Set thermostats no higher than 19°C and the water temperature in heating systems no higher than 55°C.

    • ‒  Consider switching to a low-carbon heating system such as a heat pump, especially if you live off the gas grid; if you are on the gas grid consider a hybrid system.

  • What you eat and buy:

    • ‒  Eat a healthy diet, for example with less beef, lamb and dairy.

    • ‒  Eliminate food waste as far as possible and make sure that you use separate food waste collections if available. Reduce, reuse and recycle your other waste too.

    • ‒  Use only peat-free compost.

    • ‒  Choose good quality products that will last, use them for longer and try to repair before you replace.

    • ‒  Share rather than buy items like power tools that you don’t use frequently. If you don’t/won’t use your car regularly then consider joining a car club instead.

  • Look for changes that you can make in your workplace or school to reduce emissions and support your colleagues to make changes too.

  • Talk about your experiences and help to raise awareness of the need to act. Consider the wider impacts of your actions (e.g. through your pension or ISA and via the companies you buy from).

The Bigger Picture

Yes, but what does this mean, what will change?

  • Heating buildings. An overhaul of the approach to low-carbon heating and energy efficiency is needed. The Government’s planned 2020 Heat Roadmap must establish a new approach that will lead to full decarbonisation of buildings by 2050. 

  • CCS. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is essential. They previously recommended that the first CCS cluster should be operational by 2026, with two clusters, capturing at least 10 MtCO2, operating by 2030. For a net-zero target it is very likely that more will be needed. At least one of the clusters should involve substantial production of low-carbon hydrogen. The Government will need to take a lead on infrastructure development, with long-term contracts to reward carbon capture plants and encourage investment.

  • Electric vehicles. By 2035 at the latest all new cars and vans should be electric (or use a low- carbon alternative such as hydrogen). If possible, an earlier switchover (e.g. 2030) would be desirable, reducing costs for motorists and improving air quality. 

  • Agriculture. Agriculture is already facing a period of considerable change. Future success will require diversification of incomes and taking the opportunities that come with transformational land use change. Policy to encourage farming practices that reduce emissions must move beyond the existing voluntary approach. Financial payments in the UK Agriculture Bill should be linked to actions to reduce and sequester emissions, to take effect from 2022.

  • Waste. Bio-degradable waste streams should not be sent to landfill after 2025. This will require regulation and enforcement, with supporting actions through the waste chain, including for example mandatory separation of remaining waste.

  • Low-carbon power. The supply of low-carbon power must continue to expand rapidly, and increasingly, from around 2030, some may need to run for only part of the year. While many options no longer need subsidies, Government intervention may still be needed, for example by backing long-term contracts aligned to expected wholesale prices. Policy and regulatory frameworks should also encourage flexibility (e.g. demand response, storage and interconnection).

Bottom Line

The report presents an understanding of how UK emissions can be reduced by 100% to net-zero and expect it to be delivered within the costs previously agreed by Parliament, provided all parts of government act quickly, effectively and in a coordinated fashion. Many businesses in the UK are ready to implement it; some have already set net-zero targets of their own.

A new UK target for net-zero GHGs by 2050, backed by a robust set of plans to achieve it within the UK’s strong and widely-respected legislative framework, would send a strong international signal at a critical time. It can act as the benchmark for developed nations and position the UK as a progressive climate leader on the global stage.

The changes required are substantial, but the foundations are already in place. Strong leadership is now required from governments throughout the UK, beginning with acceptance of the need to ramp up policy effort significantly and a rapid adoption of our recommendations by the Parliaments of the UK.

We really can do this … but only if we step up to the mark and engage.

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