Will the UK see Net Zero Fossil Fuel Emissions by 2050?

by | May 7, 2019

Official climate change advisors from the British government will be recommending that the country adopts a legally-binding net zero fossil fuel emissions target by 2050. These recommendations were made by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in April this year. The CCC is the independent adviser to government on climate change.

What does it mean to reach zero emissions?

“Net zero” emissions means balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal. In practice, this means slashing the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) we put in the atmosphere. Unavoidable emissions need to be captured and stored or offset by planting trees.

Previous climate change targets

  • Previous targets agreed in 2008 aimed to reduce damaging greenhouse gas emissions by 80% of what they were in 1990.

Last year, the CCC said that the UK should reduce its numbers of sheep and cattle by between a fifth and a half as they are the species contributing the most emissions. The advice from the CC said that a 20-50% reduction in beef and lamb pastures could release 3-7 million hectares of grassland. This grassland could then be repurposed to grow forests and biofuels to help soak up CO2.

How can we meet the new target?

British people and businesses will need to start making considerable changes to the way that they live and conduct business in order for the nation to meet the 2050 target. These include significant changes to the way we heat our buildings, generate power, the farming practices we use and the food we eat.

Public reception of the 2050 target

Even though the report calls for major societal changes, its aims have been generally well-received in many sectors. This speaks to widespread awareness and interest in climate change spurred by recent popular culture movements and cross-party parliamentary support.

Environmental groups have been supportive, although many think 2050 is too conservative and suggest that we need to act now to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Below 1.5C by 2100?

A 1.5C rise in temperature is considered the threshold for dangerous climate change. The CCC report says that if other countries around the world follow the UK’s target, it may be possible to avoid a 1.5C temperature rise by 2100.

What about the cost?

  • The CCC estimates the cost of the new proposal is tens of billions of pounds a year
  • The cost may reach to 1-2% of national wealth (as measured by GDP) each year by 2050.

Which businesses and sectors would be affected?

  • Major industrial carbon emitters such as paper, steel and aluminium industries.
  • Agriculture (a major emitter of greenhouse gases and user of land)
  • Fracking industry – the committee says that fracked gas should only be used if it replaces gas that would otherwise be imported.

A good place to start

The CCC has made some practical suggestions for people to start reducing their carbon footprints

  • Switch to low-carbon heating and/or turn down home thermostats to 19C
  • Better home insulation
  • Eat less beef, lamb and dairy
  • Dispose of waste more efficiently
  • Reducing food waste
  • Move towards electric vehicles
  • Walking, cycling and using public transport instead of driving
  • Choosing electric appliances with high energy efficiency ratings
  • Choosing LED lightbulbs
  • Setting the water temperatures in heating systems to no higher than 55C
  • Using only peat-free compost
  • Choosing quality products that last longer
  • Sharing or renting rather than buying items that are used infrequently

Committee Chairman Lord Deben said: “We’re looking at having as fulfilled, as different, as various a life as we have today, if not more, but to do it in a way in which we take responsibility for the future by respecting the planet which gives us life and by having different attitude to the usage of resources.”

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