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Sat, 23 January 2021

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A blueprint for an emissions-free Britain

A blueprint for an emissions-free Britain

By the early 2030s, every new car and van and every replacement boiler in the UK must be zero-carbon, writes Prof Keith Bell. | PA Images

Prof Keith Bell

Prof Keith Bell

4 min read

Reaching net-zero by 2050 is within reach, but we’ll need a major investment programme do it it. This investment will be key to the UK’s economic recovery from Covid-19.

Last week, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) did something that has never been done before. We published the world’s first detailed route map showing how the UK can clean up its economy for good, effectively ending our contribution to global warming.

To me, that feels like a landmark moment in the battle against climate change. But it’s more than that: it’s a chance to jump-start our economy, and change lives for the better, following the havoc caused by Covid-19. The route map I’m referring to is the Sixth Carbon Budget.

It’s the first carbon budget following the government’s 2019 commitment to become a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. As one of the first countries to set that goal in law, and as the host of next year’s global COP26 climate talks, the world is watching what we do next.

Cleaning-up an economy like ours in just 30 years is no mean feat. We assessed a number of different pathways, their feasibility, and interdependencies across all sectors of the economy including energy production and use of land. From these we devised a ‘Balanced Pathway’, which forms the bedrock of our advice to government.

The Balanced Pathway reduces the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible within constraints of turnover of physical assets, supply chain capacity and the time required to design effective government policy. It ticks all the critical boxes and delivers net-zero by 2050. Compared to 1990 levels, emissions in the UK must fall by almost 80% by 2035, a big step-up in ambition. Just 18 months ago, the UK’s goal was to achieve an 80% reduction by 2050.

Events in 2020 remind us more than ever of the need to tackle major systemic risks before it’s too late

The 2020s must be a decisive decade of action and progress. By the early 2030s, every new car and van and every replacement boiler in the UK must be zero-carbon; by 2035, all UK electricity production should be zero-carbon. Modern low-carbon industries will grow, producing hydrogen, capturing carbon, creating new woodlands, and renovating and decarbonising the UK’s 28 million homes. These actions will provide hundreds of thousands of new jobs throughout the country.

Policymakers in the UK now need to turn their attention to delivering the actions that will make these things possible. It’s not all about central government. Major commitments by local and regional authorities, businesses and individuals are all part of the net-zero puzzle and need to be enabled. The good news is that the UK Parliament’s Climate Assembly earlier this year showed that the public, when given access to clear information, and providing the transition is just and the costs fair, overwhelmingly support climate action.

It would be wrong to pretend that the transition will be cost-free. To deliver the required emissions reductions at the necessary scale and pace, we’ll need a major investment programme, largely delivered by the private sector. That investment will also be the key to the UK’s economic recovery from Covid-19 in the next decade.

In many areas, reaching net-zero will lead to real savings as the nation uses fewer resources and adopts cleaner, more-efficient ways of doing things. Thanks to falls in the costs of many technologies since our last assessment, our forecast of the cost out to 2050 is now less than 1% of GDP, below our previous estimates and dwarfed by the cost of climate inaction. 

Events in 2020 remind us more than ever of the need to tackle major systemic risks before it’s too late.

The prize for climate action is one that we all should pursue: reduced risk of dangerous climate change, improved health thanks to better diets, cleaner air and more active travel, new skilled jobs, increased biodiversity and a safer world for our children and grandchildren. That ambition is now within reach.


Prof Keith Bell is a member of the Independent Climate Change Committee, co-Director of the UK Energy Research Centre and holds the Scottish Power Chair in Smart Grids at the University of Strathclyde.


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