Cows in a field

‘Net Zero’ by 2050 will take radical technological and behavioural change

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A study by government-funded Energy Systems Catapult has found that reaching the net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050 will require technological development paired with serious social change, including slashing aviation and meat production.

The study, Innovating to Net Zero [PDF], modelled hundreds of different decarbonisation pathways to the UK’s climate target, which was confirmed by parliament in June 2019 (moving on from the previous target of 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2050). These pathways involved different combinations of technological and social changes, including in lifestyle and land use.

Energy Systems Catapult estimates that electricity generation will need to double in order to meet the target and urges the government to invest heavily in carbon capture (with 99 per cent capture rates), alternative shipping fuels and hydrogen and advanced nuclear technologies to decarbonise the energy industry. The target requires “unprecedented innovation” across the economy, the report said, not just with regards to new technology but also in new ways to use existing technology; in new policy and regulation, and in market design.

However, it warns that investment and development in technology is not sufficient for the country to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“Even if demand for aviation and livestock products were eliminated by 2050 and technology deployment raised to even more ambitious rates, net zero could only be brought forward to 2045,” Energy Systems Catapult stated.

Reaching the 2050 target will require radical policy to cut dairy and meat production by 50 per cent; plant a forest “up to twice the size of Birmingham” every year, and a major slowdown in aviation. Plans to expand Heathrow Airport were deemed illegal by the Court of Appeal in February given the government’s decarbonisation commitments under the Paris Agreement - which requires governments to minimise carbon emissions in order to restrict global average temperature rises to within 2°C - although the ruling does not necessarily put plans for expansion to rest quite yet.

Other policies could include low-carbon economic incentives and power market and local area energy planning reform to make the most efficient use of energy.

Energy Systems Catapult estimated that the cost of reaching net zero could be limited to one to two per cent of GDP with “stable, credible policies enacted this Parliament” to help reduce the financial burden of the transformation.

“Last year, the UK became the first major economy in the world to commit to a net-zero emissions target by 2050,” said Scott Milne, insight and evidence lead for Energy Systems Catapult.

“We’ve modelled hundreds of potential pathways to get to net zero by 2050, ramping up or down different technologies and behaviour changes to understand the different combinations, interactions and trade-offs of competing decarbonisation options to reach the most cost-optimised approaches.”

Milne explained that each pathway used a combination of top-down, tech-focused approaches and bottom-up, behaviour-focused approaches.

“No matter which pathway the UK takes, innovation, investment and incentives across low-carbon technology, land use and lifestyle is essential to achieve net zero,” he said.

“There are massive economic opportunities for the UK to lead the world in these areas.”

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