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Can the UK go Zero Carbon by 2050?

Summary - 80% Probably, 96% Maybe . . . 100% Unlikely.

The Climate Change Act of 2008 set an 80% reduction target of Green House Gas Emissions in the UK by 2050. In May 2019 the Government Voted to Declare a Climate Emergency, suggesting that the reduction target should be 100% or "Net Zero". But can the UK go Zero Carbon by 2050?

The Climate Change Committees Zero Carbon Report (227 Pages) is good reading for those wishing to jump in at the deep end, but I have summarized some of their recommendations below, and given an opinion on achievability.

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Zero Caron by 2050 in a Nut Shell

In an attempt to simplify we could adopt the CCC guide's sub-categories:

But for most, this does not really spell things out. It is tricky to explain the measures that need to be taken in a "nut shell" because they are vast and far reaching, but they involve changes to just about everything we do. To reach 80% we need to implement the following measures:

to push on to 96% we would need to implement:

to hit 100% we need to:

The Scale of the ChallengeUK_carbon_footprint_mix

The graph to the left shows which sectors generate the most emissions. We can see that we have made some improvement since 1990. The main problem with lowering emissions is that some sectors are easier then others, and some are very difficult indeed.

Perhaps the easiest way to de-carbonise is renewable energy, the only change you have to make is how you energy is generated, it is a bolt on solution that is popular because industry does not have to change its practices.

We are already meeting some of our energy and economic needs with low-carbon technologies. Half of UK electricity generation in 2017 was from low-carbon sources, including renewables and nuclear. This low-carbon electricity generation helps lower emissions in other sectors where electricity is consumed (e.g. in buildings and industry).

Problem Areas

As discussed above there are problem areas, where de-carbonsiation is slow.

Heating in Buildings - In depth

This requires roll-out of technologies such as heat pumps, hybrid heat pumps and district heating in conjunction with hydrogen, and new smart storage heating, combined with high levels of energy efficiency. New homes should  not be connected to the gas grid from 2025. By 2035 almost all replacement heating systems for existing homes must be low-carbon or ready for hydrogen, such that the share of low-carbon heating increases from 4.5% today to 90% in 2050. These changes could be made atan average cost of around £140/tCO2e. Remaining emissions in 2050 largely come from a small proportion of homes which could be very expensive to treat (e.g. due to space constraints and the costs of the heating systems they require).

Surface Transport  - In depth

This will need all cars and vans to be electric by 2050, and for the vast majority of HGVs to be either electric or hydrogen powered. These changes are likely to be cost saving overall. Remaining emissions in 2050 are largely from a small level of conventionally powered HGVs and rail freight.

Some Perspective

An attempt to put these problem areas in to context.

Surface Transport

Wider uptake of electric cars would require many more charging points. It has taken 9 years to build 21,000 charging points for electric cars across the UK. We need to build 25,000 by 2050. This would require to increase installation rates by a factor of 3 approximately. This assumes that lithium batteries can be manufactured at a rate applicable to the uptake requirement.

Heating in Buildings

Approximately 210,000 homes are built in the UK every year. At present the vast majority are fitted with gas grid combi boilers. Within 6 years this will not be an acceptable solution. Either we repurpose the gas grid to provide zero carbon bio gas or hydrogen, or we have to heat our homes with electricity (likely heat pump). If the latter we will have a massive growing burden placed on the energy network, in many rural areas these are near overload, so upgrades will be required.

Quick Carbon Fact

A Binge on Toys, Food and Booze (Alcoholic Beverages) at Christmas can add 1.5 tonnes CO2e to the average UK person's Carbon Footprint. A typically UK resident uses 12 tons a year.