Net Zero: Easier than we think?

If there’s one thing that unites the UK's climate campaigners and their critics, it’s the belief that getting to net zero by 2050 won’t be easy. 

With fresh analysis from Carbon Brief showing the country is already more than half way to achieving this target (or almost half way when accounting for the temporary impacts of Covid19) it begs the question: is getting to zero a whole lot easier than we think? 

A decade ago about 40% of the country's electricity came from coal and just 3% from wind and solar. By 2020, thanks to big policy reforms under successive governments, these numbers had reversed. In just a decade, emissions have fallen by almost a third

There are compelling reasons for optimism that a similar transformation is speeding along in the car market. The Prime Minister's decision to end new petrol and diesel sales by 2030 could alone deliver two thirds of the carbon cuts we need in the next decade under the Climate Change Act. 

As Ministers weigh new auto regulations, clean air zones are kicking in all over the country. The new Environment Bill should set more stringent controls on toxic pollutants, further discouraging diesel sales, which have already fallen off a cliff, down by almost a fifth in a single year. Ford, like Volvo, is going all-electric by 2030. Jaguar Land Rover will get there sooner, by 2025, at which time VW expects to be the biggest provider of electric cars in the world. Tesla’s market value already dwarfs the entire German auto sector combined. 

Onto heating emissions, which are roughly comparable in size to carbon from cars. New research from Oxford's Jan Rosenow suggests heat pumps are going the same way as wind farms and electric cars, and that with smallish changes to the energy market they could soon be cheaper than gas boilers. The heat pump installation rate recently doubled in Poland and jumped 40% in Germany where more than a million have now been fitted. A private briefing paper for clean energy investors claimed there will be a 470% increase in UK heat pump installation by 2030 without any new policies, although the government is likely to set out a plan to boost uptake in the forthcoming net zero review, given its target for a 25-fold increase in the next six years. Private money is already moving behind this new market, driven by these anticipated policies and the future homes standard, which bans gas boilers in new houses from 2025. 

How will we power these efforts to electrify cars and heating, you might ask? The CCC has advised that, like Biden’s America, the UK will need to achieve 100% zero carbon electricity by 2035. Given the pace of recent progress, odds on we’ll get there. (Scotland already has.) The current debate is about how we expand the North Sea’s offshore wind farms and undersea super grid quickly enough, and whether the supply will be sufficient without more nuclear power. None of this is straightforward; but it’s far from impossible. A rover on Mars recently beamed images back to Earth, so I’m fairly confident we can erect turbines and lay cables close to where we stuck up all those oil rigs. 

Our green supply of power can then do much of the rest of the heavy-lifting on the path to net zero, as we use renewable energy to create “green” hydrogen for steel production and maybe even aviation fuel.

Number crunchers at Cambridge Econometrics looked at other policies proposed by the Prime Minister in his "10-point-plan for a Green Industrial Revolution" and found that, implemented in full, the UK would be on course to achieve 59% cuts by 2030. That is, we would hit the carbon target for the decade ahead that we’re obligated to meet under the Climate Change Act.

Of course, at the end of last year the Prime Minister toughened up that target, so we're now aiming for a 68% cut in emissions by 2030. In other words we must find an extra 9% over 9 years. Just 1% more a year. Can it really be so hard? 

Big progress is often easier to deliver than we’re led to believe - either by those who get lost in the weeds over this technology or that policy, or by those who have a cynical vested interest in acting as a bulwark against change. We emphatically know from the coal-to-clean transition that big, lasting, positive change is within politicians’ grasp. And all the evidence suggests that once the government commits to clear political timetables for delivery - end coal by 2025, new petrol and diesel sales by 2030, and gas boilers by the same date (?) - investment will crowd into cleaner options.

But right now trust and confidence in the government to deliver is relatively low, the policy framework is patchy, to say the least, and fossil fuel incumbents like the gas industry are fighting tooth and nail to maintain their market share for as long as possible. Despite uplifting technological cost curves, the political lift is heavily weighed down with these factors, and the transition still feels far from inevitable. 

As I wrote in my last memo, there are good reasons to view what we've already achieved as "the easy stuff". But the simple stuff is never easy. Many people worked damn hard to make it look and feel that way with hindsight.

Tony Blair's 2007 decision to lock Britain into an EU deal to achieve 20% renewable energy by 2020 was seen as so extraordinarily ambitious that commentators openly speculated whether he only agreed to it because he mixed up the words 'electricity' and 'energy'. Some of his own Ministers were backing a new fleet of coal stations in England at the time, and would frequently argue renewables were unreliable, too expensive, and couldn't compete with fossil fuels. Their energy strategy back then anticipated that by 2020 coal would still supply more than renewables. As recently as 2013, John Hayes, acting (briefly) as Energy Minister, told reporters he wanted to "put the coal back into the coalition" government. 

We see almost identical arguments turned on electric cars and heat pumps today. How long before they too are looked back on as "the easy stuff", I wonder? I would wager that Ministers have surprised themselves with their own success in driving what has been the fastest pace of decarbonisation in the G20. We’re just a few simple steps away from our next big breakthrough, blazing a trail for economies around the world. Could the simple stuff feel easier this time around?