On 14 November Baroness Brown of Cambridge, Vice Chair of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, delivered the 2019 UKELA Garner Lecture to a packed audience of UKELA members. The topic was “Delivering net-zero emissions” and Baroness Brown set out, in clear and persuasive terms, the why, when and how of delivering a net-zero economy in the UK by 2050, before providing a number of personal observations. Here are some of the key messages:

  • The target of 80% (set down in the 2008 Climate Change Act) was not as ambitious as we all thought. Getting to c.80% mostly requires more of what we are already competent at: predominantly, that’s electrification, zero carbon power generation and energy efficiency. This could be achieved with a carbon price of around £20/tonne.
  •  However, the revised target of net zero (embedded into law through the 2019 amendments to the Climate Change Act) does require us to tackle the more difficult challenges: heat for buildings (including domestic); heavier transport (where electric batteries are insufficient); heavy industrial heat and power demands. A significant part of the answer for all these challenges is hydrogen, produced from zero carbon electricity at times of surplus. As Baroness Brown put it “the net zero story is very strongly about creating a hydrogen economy”. Hydrogen production needs to move from 27TWh to 370TWh.  There is a massive opportunity for the UK to become leaders in green hydrogen production.
  •  The other major factor in achieving net zero is the significant uptake in carbon capture use and storage (CCUS): 180 Mt CO2 capacity is needed.
  •  Land use and agriculture plays an important role, and there will need to be behavioural and societal change around diet and travel.
  •  To get to 96% reduction requires a carbon price of up to £120/tonne.
  •  The final 4% requires some speculation about the readiness of society to accept changes (such as a reduction of 50% in consumption of animal products) and about availability of new technologies – but the pace of both societal change and technological innovation may well solve these issues before 2050. The carbon price to bring this change an innovation might need to be around £300/tonne.

Baroness Brown’s personal reflections included the following:

  •  Calls for the UK to achieve net zero by 2030 are simply unrealistic – there is too much to do.  However, individuals, institutions, companies and others can (and should) set more challenging targets themselves.
  •  It will take more than just a carbon price and leaving it to the market. All the changes must be progressed in parallel and some changes (in particular decarbonisation of existing building stock) will be more costly than others.  Significant government intervention is going to be needed.  This includes improved communication to members of civil society about steps they can take to reduce their own carbon footprint and encourage behavioral change.
  •  We still need gas. Natural gas will be the feedstock for hydrogen and it might also be needed as a residual fuel (with CCUS). Our oil and gas companies have the engineering skills and expertise to solve the technical challenges around hydrogen production and CCUS and must be part of the UK’s journey.
  •  The accepted wisdom of the need for a base-load source of electricity generation to counter intermittent renewables might be over-stated given the potential for the development of electricity storage and much smarter demand-side management.
  •  The Office for Environmental Protection’s expanded remit (under the current proposals) might in fact constrain the CCC. At the moment, the CCC is free to use strong and stern language against the government, and it is effective. If the OEP could use the CCC’s words in litigation, the CCC would be more guarded. The governance and supervisory overlap of the two bodies needs further thought.
  •  It will be cheaper than the predicted 1.3% of GDP. Once a clear direction is set and the policy framework is in place, innovation will bring efficiencies, driving down the costs. The success of our established renewable technologies such as offshore wind and solar demonstrates the point.

Baroness Brown did not suggest the change to a net zero economy would be easy. She did, however, put forward a powerful case that it is feasible and cost-effective against business-as-usual scenarios and the cost of climate change.