The UK Government has announced both its aim to cut emissions by 68% by the end of 2030 and its Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, seeking to provide a blueprint to allow the UK “to forge ahead with eradicating its contribution to climate change by 2050”. Here, Dr Sarah Mander from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, considers the details needed to take these plans from ambition to reality.
- The ambitions demonstrate the UK’s commitment to fight the climate crisis. Applied successfully, they are key to building back better.
- The detail is lacking and this threatens to cause further delay in adopting much needed decarbonisation strategies.
- Some elements of the Ten Point Plan, are not yet actionable as either rely on long-term technology solutions or depend on government-led business models or skills development programmes
- However, there is existing expertise and practices that could make a difference almost immediately: in the shipping sector, in the domestic and industrial heat market, and in the approach to sub-national innovation. These should be prioritised to enable emission reductions now.
Five years on from the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement and one year until COP26, the government’s recent announcements, to cut emissions by 68% by 2030 and the Ten Point Plan, set ambitions both necessary and welcomed.
However, the devil is in the detail, and details are currently missing. For many points within the Ten Point Plan, the lack of detail threatens continued paralysis. For example, progress on carbon capture technology remains delayed as we wait for long-promised clarity on business models, while the additional £200 million funding, promised again last week, takes us back to the levels of funding first promised in 2010. Similarly, the much-needed plans to transform domestic heating require a UK-wide training programme to avoid the bottleneck we’ve seen in retro-fitting, and ensure trade-supply both matches domestic-demand and supports a green jobs recovery.
The problem is, the scale of the climate emergency is so significant we don’t have the luxury of time. We need to quickly decarbonise our energy consumption, from how we heat our homes to how we travel and fuel the manufacture of goods.
This is where three specific points in the Ten Point Plan can be accelerated if we expand the limited detail to include, and prioritise, practices that we know will either reduce emissions now, or allow for seamless implementation when the technology is ready.
Take for example, shipping and aviation. The Ten Point Plan aims to support “difficult-to-decarbonise industries to become greener through research projects for zero-emission planes and ships”. However, if we look beyond ‘Jet Zero’ technology and consider known approaches to reduce energy consumption, we have the potential to significantly decarbonise the industry. Tyndall Manchester research, published in June, demonstrated that without adopting slower speeds and retrofitting ships with energy saving measures such as modern sails, the shipping sector could not meet Paris targets, even assuming new vessels are able to run on zero-carbon fuels from 2030. We cannot wait for zero-carbon fuels to be developed and remain within our carbon budgets. However, by applying measures to decarbonise shipping within existing infrastructures, the research showed we can achieve milestone reductions, while simultaneously developing new transformative technologies.
Secondly, hydrogen. Domestic and industrial heat are responsible for approximately a third of UK emissions, and there are a number of technological approaches through which it can be decarbonised. Switching from natural gas to low-carbon hydrogen is a proposed approach. However, the need for significant amounts of zero-carbon hydrogen aside, the public must be brought on board, with the recent UK Climate Assemblies suggesting that hydrogen is less popular than other approaches to decarbonise domestic heating. Its report revealed only 20% strongly agreed that hydrogen should be a part of how the UK gets to net zero, compared to 31% for heat networks and 34% for heat pumps
Through our research on establishing a social license for carbon capture, we know that public engagement is critical to the successful introduction of technologies that impact local populations and where that support is lacking, as was the case for fracking deployment, can attract huge opposition. Therefore, it’s crucial that when it comes to hydrogen, investment is split: research into generation; with money and time set aside to design and deliver the processes to engage the public. Without the latter, the former is moot.
Finally, in regards to innovation and finance, the government sets out a desire to “develop the cutting-edge technologies needed to reach these new energy ambitions and make the City of London the global centre of green finance”. This is an exciting ambition but while that’s all being mapped out, accurate carbon accounting, applied at a local level, can deliver significant impact now. The UK’s expertise in carbon accounting, as seen in research undertaken for West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), empowers local authorities to apply measures within existing infrastructure. With regions like Greater Manchester under pressure to make year on year emission reductions of 15% to stay within its carbon budget, carbon counting is a viable solution to achieving targets now, rather than relying on large-scale, long-term technological innovation set out within the UK Government’s Ten Point Plan.
The welcomed ambition of the government demonstrates the UK’s commitment to fight the climate crisis. Delivering on that commitment requires immediate action. It’s important that we should recognise that some of the ten points are not yet actionable. While long-term technology solutions are researched, in the short-term, new business models need to be trialled and tested, and skills training must be provided at scale.
We have learned two things from the COVID-19 crisis: firstly, we can move quickly when we need to; and secondly, we need to build back better. By making a commitment to greening our society, and applying measures we know to work, now, we can reduce carbon emissions, while ensuring future resilience, local prosperity, ‘levelling-up’ through job creation and societal equality.