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Can The UK Achieve Five Key Net Zero Targets In The Next Decade?

Can The UK Achieve Five Key Net Zero Targets In The Next Decade?

Michael Thorogood

6 min read

More than 40 countries agreed to five ambitious targets at COP26 that aim to make clean technologies affordable and accessible worldwide by 2030.

Known as the Glasgow Breakthroughs, their policies aim to accelerate the development of green technologies and keep the ambitions of the Paris Agreement alive. 

But how feasible is it that the UK can achieve each breakthrough within the decade target, and what does this mean for delivering on their promise worldwide?

Power

The decarbonisation of the UK power sector is arguably the greatest success story on the UK's road to net zero. Carbon emissions from electricity generation fell 71% between 1990 and 2019, while the amount of renewable energy has risen 500 percent over the past 12 years. 

The government has also pledged to decarbonise the UK power system by 2035 by accelerating the rollout of home-grown green technologies. This means the sector has progressed some way towards the Breakthrough goal for clean power to become the most affordable, reliable and efficient option by 2030.

"The UK energy sector has led the way in moving to clean power with low carbon sources now providing over half of our electricity generation and renewables like wind and solar proving to be the cheapest forms of power," Emma Pinchbeck, chief executive of Energy UK, told PoliticsHome. 

"Our sector is committed to having a net zero power system in place during the 2030s."

Ensuring that our energy is affordable and reliable will also require an energy system that is flexible and able to balance out intermittencies when renewable output is low. According to National Grid ESO, 13GW of new electricity storage could be needed by 2030 to manage fluctuating output and dependable sources such as nuclear will also be needed to ensure a consistent supply. A Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill is going through Parliament, aiming to support innovations such as small modular reactors.

Pinchbeck explains that delivering on the power breakthrough is crucial for the UK to achieve the remaining four Glasgow goals. 

"Having a net zero power system in place during the 2030s will be vital in providing the clean power that will enable other sectors like housing and transport to follow suit," she added. 

"In order to do that, we need the Government to back up its climate change targets with the right policies and actions that will enable our sector to invest and deliver – and of course, it needs to be mirrored by other countries.”

Road transport

Surface transport remains the single highest emitter in the UK and the Breakthroughs aim for zero emission vehicles to become the "new normal" by 2030. At COP26, the UK was a leading voice in calling for the decarbonisation of road transport, launching a declaration on transitioning to 100% zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) in leading markets by 2035, and globally by 2040.

The UK government has brought forward a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2030, with only ZEVs being sold from 2035. Plug-in hybrid sales have boomed by 152 percent over the last year in the UK and Nissan has announced that it will construct a $1.4bn electric vehicle battery plant in Sunderland.

However, a report published in June by green group Transport and Environment found that the UK could be left behind in the electric vehicle race. Despite the UK producing around half of all electric cars built in Europe in 2018, a lack of investment from UK manufacturers means this is projected to fall to just four percent by 2030. Charging infrastructure will also need to be rolled out across the UK if the ZEV revolution is to be truly affordable and accessible.

As sector expert at Dods Group Helen Hill explains, the government will also need to look beyond ZEVs to decarbonise the sector. 

"While the government is ambitious about decarbonising road vehicles, they will have to broaden their horizons and encourage a more fundamental shift towards integrated, multi-modal transport to achieve net zero," Hill explained. 

"Accelerating the rollout of ZEVs will play an important role in reducing emissions from transport in the future, but the government should also look to green public transport and active travel to reduce emissions now."

Steel

Steel is the UK's largest industrial emitter, yet earlier this year a study by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) found that the UK was falling behind Europe in the race to decarbonise steel. It warned that the UK had no plans for using hydrogen to produce primary steel and only vague proposals for projects based on carbon capture. In August, the Climate Action 100+ coalition warned that steelmakers were finding it hard to plan for decarbonisation due to the uncertain pace of development for clean technologies.

The £250m UK Clean Steel Fund was designed to assist producers in switching to low carbon production, but funds will not be allocated until 2023. While near-zero emission steel should be established in the UK by the end of the decade, it remains uncertain what proportion of the market such production will account for.

Hydrogen

The Hydrogen Strategy, published in August, sets out how the UK government aims to deliver on the Breakthrough goal for renewable and low carbon hydrogen to become available by 2030. Backed by a £240m Net Zero Hydrogen Fund set to launch in early 2022, the strategy opts for a "twin-track" approach that supports both green and blue hydrogen, aiming to rapidly grow the sector and lower costs.

However, the strategy presents a timeframe that leaves the Breakthrough target in question. First movers in the hydrogen economy are likely to be small in the early 2020s, scaling up to larger projects around 100MW by mid-decade, mostly in industrial clusters. 

Yet technologies such as hydrogen from nuclear are unlikely to come to market until later in the 2030s and while hydrogen has been used in sectors such as transport, other utilisations including for heat in homes remain unproven at scale. A decision on blending hydrogen into the UK gas network is not expected until late 2023.

Agriculture

The Environment Act sets out measures to align UK agriculture with the Breakthrough goal of making climate-resilient, sustainable agriculture the most attractive option for farmers by 2030. This is supported by the launch of Environment Land Management Schemes that reward farmers for delivering environmental benefits.

However, as explained by sector expert at Dods Group Dr Joshua Wells, achieving this Breakthrough depends largely on how "sustainable" agriculture is defined. 

"Sustainable agriculture has many dimensions," Dr Wells explained to PoliticsHome. "If we consider the carbon impact of the UK agriculture sector, it is not yet sustainable in the sense it is yet to achieve net zero, and the government does not plan for net zero to be achieved in this sector by 2030."

In a landmark year for environmental reform in the UK, the efficacy of new schemes also remains unproven. "Another facet of sustainability is whether it gives farmers a sustainable livelihood," Dr Wells says. "Given that the Environment Land Management Schemes are in their early days, we cannot yet make a judgment about whether farmers do receive a sustainable degree of support to manage their lands."

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