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Business can provide the technical solutions that we badly need to reach net zero

Decarbonisation will create huge opportunities for sustainable economic growth as the economy changes shape, says Jerome Mayhew MP

5 min read

It is the ingenuity of private business that is going to provide the solutions if we are to reach net zero.

Achieving carbon net zero by 2050 is now a legal requirement, but most of us only have a vague idea on how we are going to do this.  

Is it even possible without giving up what we think of as modern life?  

So, if you know that we need to achieve this, but are not sure how, then this is my take on how we are going to get there.

Some of this will be wrong, as technology and the economy develops, but I believe that this is the direction of travel.

Power (23% of UK greenhouse Gas emissions)

This is the relatively easy bit. The move to renewable electricity generation is already well underway.

We currently generate c.10Gw in offshore wind. By 2030 this is planned to increase to a whopping 40Gw, and thereafter 75-80Gw by 2050.  To put this into perspective, the total size of the electricity generation market in the UK is currently 68Gw. 

Simply replacing what we have is not going to be enough, as transport, domestic heating and much industry moves towards electricity from other power sources – estimates suggest we will need to double, or even treble, generating capacity. 

So, wind will need to be bolstered by other low carbon or zero carbon technologies which will also need a form of reliable backup for when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. 

Hydrogen is hugely important as a (potentially) low carbon fuel for heavy industry and heavy transport when electricity is not suitable, and can be made from water when excess electricity is available. But it is unlikely that this will ever produce enough hydrogen.

So “blue” hydrogen created from natural gas in conjunction with carbon capture and storage (“CCS”) is likely to be needed.  CCS is a developing technology – without which it is hard to see how we can succeed. 

Nuclear is also likely to be part of the overall blend of solutions, with a handful of new nuclear power stations needed to provide consistent base load to balance fluctuating renewables when international interconnectors are not enough.

Transport (28% of UK greenhouse Gas emissions)

Domestic and small goods vehicles are likely to be battery powered in the run up to 2035, as we phase out the sale of ICU vehicles. Heavier vehicles are more likely to use hydrogen.

Shipping, which is currently excluded from our carbon emission calculations, is a huge emitter of greenhouse gases and accounted for 2.2% of global CO2 emissions in 2012. This is equivalent to the total emissions of Germany. It would be great to imagine the re-birth of the sailing ship.  More likely is hydrogen, stored as ammonia.

Air travel is already investing in battery powered flight for short haul, as recently announced by easyJet. 

For longer haul, biofuels have started to be used, with KLM flying a flight a day with 50% biofuel. 

But the amounts needed to convert the current industry will be vast, with productive agriculture put aside for biofuel growth at a time when yields will be under pressure as never before.

Housing (15% of UK greenhouse gas emissions)

Almost every house and building in the country is going to need massive insulation, not just in the roof, but in or on the walls and windows.

This is the kind of work that will require millions of people to move out whilst works are undertaken. 

Without it I don’t see how we are going to be able to get the existing housing stock radically to reduce its heat requirements, even if new housing is built to a much warmer standard from 2025 onwards.

Just looking at the “to do” list makes it obvious that it will also create huge opportunities for sustainable economic growth as the economy changes shape. 

Agriculture (10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions)

Land has the capacity to trap large amounts of carbon within soil structure, which can be used as a valuable “product” in its own right if other areas of the economy cannot get all the way to net zero.  Biodiversity loss must be stopped and then reversed over the course of the next decade, and we need significantly to increase farming productivity if we are to improve our food security. 

All of this on the same acre (plus build a lot of new houses and plant millions of trees). 

How? Well, the only way that I can see this happening is if we free up land for improved biodiversity by using other areas for scientific and intense farming with increased yields – vertical farming under glass, hydroponics, gene editing and even GM all have a role to play and need rockets put into their research. 

Some of this is starting to happen, much led by the world-renowned John Innes Centre in Norwich, but there is no time to lose.

International trade (According to the WWF in 2016, 46% of the UK’s carbon footprint was from emissions released overseas to satisfy UK consumption).

It is no good patting ourselves on the back for our virtuous reduction in domestic emissions, if we then import lots of goods made abroad in high-carbon jurisdictions. 

Carbon leakage simply ruins your own manufacturing base through high carbon costs but does nothing to reduce carbon emissions globally. 

So, we will fix this by the development of carbon border adjustment tariffs to create the low-carbon level playing field that rewards domestic manufacturing and encourages international trading partners to reduce their carbon emissions too. 

If you are interested in this, have a look at the paper that I wrote on this here.

There it is: my blueprint for a carbon free UK in the next 30 years. 

Doable, and doable as part of a thriving free market economy, since it is the ingenuity of private business that is going to provide the technical solutions that we badly need. 

Just looking at the “to do” list makes it obvious that it will also create huge opportunities for sustainable economic growth as the economy changes shape. 

There is so much to do, and I am very pleased that the Government is getting stuck in.


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