This article is partly inspired by the discussions and outcomes of the Achieving Net Zero conference, held in Oxford over 9-11 September 2019. http://www.netzero.org.uk/
What is Net Zero?
In Paris, on 12th December 2015, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to work together to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify actions needed for a sustainable low carbon future. This “Paris Agreement” reflected the ambition of the global community to halt anthropogenic climate change with each national government setting its own targets (Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)) and implement changes to decarbonise society.
We acknowledge that even if we rapidly reduce our use of fossil fuels, human activity will still generate harmful greenhouse emissions, and so we need to remove carbon to prevent further accumulation in the atmosphere. This need to achieve net zero emissions is reflected in Article 4.1 which states the need “...to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources, and removal by sinks of greenhouse gases, in the second half of this century”.
Are we getting there?
It is clear that a major transformation towards a low carbon energy system is under way, which is tremendously encouraging, but it must be acknowledged that progress to date is limited. In fact, greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. The growing awareness of the climate emergency and public pressure for action are positive factors that help the national conversation. They will also help establish a new normal of a low carbon society, which relies on electric powered heating and transport, and a circular economy.
How do we know?
Defining sources of emissions and sinks, and the timeframe and boundaries in which the numbers are crunched is critically important. Yet there is no agreed carbon accounting approach. Different greenhouse gases have different global warming potentials and atmospheric life spans. Things, materials, and resources we buy and use may have long production chains spanning multiple locations and so the full greenhouse gas footprint might not be included in a nationally focused accounting boundary. It is important to be aware of these issues, as they will influence our understanding of progress and the solutions, policy design and actions needed.
Heading for 3°C
Climate activists claim current action is not enough in terms of scale and timeframe, pointing out every decade lost, by not implementing significant coordinated mitigation, leads to an additional 0.2 - 0.25°C of warming. Indeed, from the declared NDCs, it seems that we are on track to see global average temperatures increase by about 3°C by 2100, very obviously missing the target of 1.5°C. By missing the target, we put people’s lives at risk, causing unnecessary suffering and fatalities, and causing species extinction. Immediate action against climate change is essential to lessen the burden on current and future generations.
Climate activists claim that current action is not enough in terms of scale and timeframe, pointing out for every decade lost, by not implementing significant coordinated mitigation, there will be an additional 0.2 - 0.25°C of warming. Indeed, from the declared NDCs, it seems that currently we are on track to see global average temperatures increase by about 3°C, very obviously missing the target of 1.5°C. By missing the target, we risk people’s lives, social upheaval, unnecessary suffering and significant increase the likelihood of species extinction and biodiversity loss. Immediate action against climate change is essential to lessen the burden on current and future generations.
Keep fossil fuel in the ground and remove their subsidies
Lowering emissions by reducing use of fossil fuel energy is an obvious and necessary first step. This will always be easier than recapturing what has been emitted!
It is very difficult for governments to establish net zero credibility when they still subsidise fossil fuels. Subsidising fossil fuels removes the risk to investors and sends signals to the market to continue supporting fossil fuel production. It also locks the recipients into high-carbon dependency for decades. The investments undermine legally-binding climate neutrality agreements, and international climate and development targets, and have wide-ranging negative environmental impacts. Yet vested interest and powerful lobbyists in countries make governments unwilling to phase-out fossil fuel energy.
Energy efficiency, energy efficiency, and renewable energy!
Improving energy efficiency is the best and most economical way to reduce emissions, as it brings down demand. There are additional benefits of less waste, economic savings and the potential to deliver higher levels of comfort to building occupiers of all types. Traditionally it has been underrated, overlooked, and underfunded but is now getting more attention as people realise the benefits.
We must ensure that renewable energy and flexibility approaches are developed as much as possible to enable us to generate and use as much clean energy as much as possible.
Change the way we heat buildings
Analysis by the Energy Systems Catapult for the Committee on Climate Change explored what is means to cut carbon in UK households to achieve Net Zero emissions compared to 1990 levels. It found (see Figure 1) that the biggest challenge is how we heat our buildings. This currently produces 31% of household emissions but needs to reduce to 11% in a 2050 net zero scenario. Non-fossil fuel alternatives to space heating include heat pumps, electric boilers, heat networks, community energy schemes, infrared etc but huge societal change is needed and incentives to retrofit existing buildings.
We must tackle other areas urgently
The Centre for Alterative Technology says that we can create a Zero Carbon Britain before 2050 using existing, proven technology. But we will need a policy framework and effective mechanisms designed to work well with a range of sectors, including energy production, industry, housing, business, transport, land use and agriculture.
Although some social and environmental impacts of other solutions remain uncertain, enough is known to start them with urgency. They include increasing energy system efficiency, establishing processes and markets for circular material flows, diversification of feedstocks for bio-energy, and large-scale electrification using renewable energy.
Bioenergy crops with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is one of the most prominent of a ‘sink’ technique but many issues remain about the suitability in different places. A linear carbon tax is arguably the simplest policy available and reduces climate risk compared to more complicated emission trading schemes or other pricing equations.
Nature based solutions have much to offer in terms of carbon sequestration, in addition to restoring and maintaining ecosystem biodiversity and robustness. However, they are not alternatives to the continued use of fossil fuels, and must be implemented as whole ecosystem approaches not just monocultures of forests, for example.
Let’s share knowledge and learn from each other
Global impact occurs through knowledge diffusion and capacity building. While not all solutions can be directly transferred between locations, due to different social and economic structures and natural resource endowments, there are significant benefits to international knowledge sharing that we must make happen. For example, learning from experiences in one place can encourage local authorities and non-state actors in others, increasing their confidence, ambition and scale of action.
The UNFCCC encourages this through reporting of multi-stakeholder action in the “Yearbook of Global Climate Action” (2019). There are also a growing number of organisations and initiatives that showcase local action such as REN21 which reports on renewable energy targets and policies in cities (2019), as well as academic work (Hsu, et al 2018).
Innovations to reach net zero are only viable however when there are people available with the skills to implement them. This happens within companies, and in public and private collaboration networks, specifically created to transfer relevant knowledge and skills. Regulatory knowledge cannot move as easily however and requires dedicated channels that are topic specific (Broadbent 2017). We must take special effort to ensure regulatory knowledge exchange occurs as it can greatly increase the capacity of local governments to foster and deliver change.
Eric Brown, Chief Technology Officer at Energy Systems Catapult explains, “We are working to identify viable pathways and develop tools to inform government and other stakeholders on what can be done to get to Net Zero. One important area of this work is helping innovators to trial new approaches to decarbonise heating by testing new products, services and business models with real people in our Living Lab of 100 smart-enabled homes spread around the UK. ”
Another huge challenge facing us is not technological but the societal and behavioural change needed to help everyone transition to an equitable net zero future. Government needs to play a critical role in this: we must identify the political pathways for a more rapid transition to zero, and make low carbon choices affordable and within grasp of everyone. We need to raise everyone’s awareness: communication needs to be integrated into the heart of the policymaking process and rollout of measures, and not just be an addition at the end of it.
Small changes can have global impacts
You can play your part and adopt a low carbon lifestyle by adopting the following!
- When traveling see if you walk, cycle, or use public transport, as a first choice. Take as few flights as possible. Use car sharing schemes, and use an electric vehicle as much as possible;
- At home, insulate wall and lofts, and ensure appliances and lightbulbs are as efficient as possible. Set the thermostat to between 18 and 21 and switch to a renewable energy supplier. Install electric forms of heating;
- Eliminate as much food waste as possible and reduce meat & dairy consumption;
- Use less, buy less, fix and repair as much as possible. Buy second hand or borrow from a friend neighbour or a Library of Things; and
- Talk with the people around you about your actions, to coordinate and multiply your impact!