Reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is going to mean drastic changes to everyday life.
That’s according to the U.K. Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent government advisory body, which will give recommendations in December for Britain’s next emissions target for the mid-2030s. It will also for the first time outline a plan on how the country can reach climate-neutrality by mid-century, CCC Chief Executive Chris Stark told POLITICO.
“Net zero — of course, an energy transition is a big part of it, but it’s a whole economy transition, really,” he said, adding, “The most interesting things [in December’s recommendations] are not really about the energy transition … but it’s the societal transition that goes with it.”
That means changes to how the U.K. uses agricultural land, what people eat and how they travel.
“We’ll be looking a lot more at using cycling, and walking in cities, how public transport plays a role, how we can change patterns of air travel, so that air travel’s impact is reduced,” Stark said. December’s advice “will give a full set of pathways from today out to 2050 in each sector … it demonstrates how society will need to shift.”
The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily kicked climate change off the political agenda. But efforts to dig economies out of the crisis-induced hole are increasingly tied to climate neutrality objectives.
That’s also fueled by a growing understanding among governments that trillions in recovery cash could either transform the economy and curb emissions, or lock in polluting infrastructure for decades.
“This is really the crunch decade. We’re going to have to move from a point where these plans are only on paper, to actually developing, in every sector, the policies and ultimately the investments that will drive all of this,” Stark said over the phone. “Unless it’s done this decade, we will not meet the [Paris Agreement] targets, and globally that’s true as well. It’s really [a] crunch moment.”
The U.K. legislated for climate-neutrality by 2050 last June, following the CCC’s recommendations. The committee is the only European government-affiliated body that’s really mapped what climate-neutrality means in practice — leading the way for other European and developed economies.
The European Commission is currently negotiating to put the 2050 goal into law, and assessing the impact of higher 2030 targets.
The CCC’s task now is to come up with the “best, most cost-effective, most achievable strategy to achieve that target,” Stark said.
No wiggle room
But as temperatures rise, and local communities are more frequently exposed to climate-related impacts such as droughts and floods, politicians have less room to maneuver.
“We are more and more vocal, and spiky, with government about what they must do … we say the things they can’t or won’t. As you get closer to the date by which you need to achieve the target, the uncertainty of how you achieve it starts to reduce,” said Stark. “Twenty years ago, you could say there were lots and lots of possibilities for how you may achieve the goal. As you get closer to it, those start to narrow down.”
Emissions will have to radically shrink across the economy to hit the 2050 target.
Until now, politicians, campaigners and companies have largely focused on greening the energy sector, squeezing out coal in favor of less polluting gas, renewables and — in the case of the U.K. — nuclear. As a result of that effort, Britain ran for two full months without coal-generated power as of Wednesday, the first time that’s happened since the Industrial Revolution.
That’s going to have to become the norm in the future.
“We’re relying a lot on electrifying the economy, at least a doubling of demand for electricity — so it’s a doubling of size of the electricity system, all of which needs to be zero carbon,” he said.
Hydrogen plays a key role in greening the one-third of the economy that can’t be easily electrified.
“That would make the hydrogen sector as big as the electricity sector is today. That gives you a sense of the scale of it, and that needs to be achieved over a few decades. It’s enormous, absolutely enormous,” Stark said.
Even that scale of change may need help from more esoteric technologies to soak up remaining emissions.
“There’s a big story about greenhouse gas removals,” Stark said.
politico.eu, 11 June 2020