Stepping out on the road to net zero
4 January 2022
In the first of a new blog series, Nick Hughes, Bartlett Faculty Lead for Climate Action explains why the faculty has pledged to reach net zero by 2030.
There’s an old joke. A tourist in the countryside asks for directions to a nearby town. “Well,” muses the local, “if I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here.”
The Bartlett has adopted a net-zero emissions target for 2030. It’s going to be a hugely challenging journey; and there’s nowhere else to start from, but here. In this series of blogs I’ll be discussing what this challenge involves for us.
Why net zero?
Let’s take that compound phrase in two parts. First, “zero” – the only way to stop climate change is to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. If that is to happen, it means that overall emissions of greenhouse gases must fall to zero, for the world as a whole.
But “overall” emissions can include the balance between greenhouse gases that are added to the atmosphere, and greenhouse gases that are removed from the atmosphere. This is what is meant by “net” emissions – “net” means “overall”. Natural processes such as the growth of plants do absorb CO2 and remove it from the atmosphere, and these processes could compensate for some of our emissions. But it must be stressed that such natural processes could only compensate for a very small amount of our current emissions. It is possible that by scaling up such natural processes in combination with various kinds of engineering techniques, we may be able to increase the scale at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere. But this is an area of considerable uncertainty.
Thus, while some removal of CO2 through natural processes will continue, and there may be potential to enhance this through engineering, CO2 removals are very far from being a free pass. It remains the case that almost everything we do will need to occur with zero emissions. We should expect that levels of CO2 removal will only be able to compensate for continued emissions from a very small amount of our activities.
For example, in their Sixth Carbon Budget report, the UK’s Climate Change Committee presents a scenario that gets to net zero, called “Balanced Pathway.” By the time it gets to net zero, it allows for continued emissions of 58 megatonnes of CO2 to be balanced by CO2 removals. That is 11% of the UK’s 2019 emissions, and is taken up by emissions from waste, agriculture and aviation. This means that every other sector – including electricity generation, energy use in buildings, land transport, shipping, manufacturing, construction – is operating with virtually zero emissions.
This UK-level scenario provides a clear guide as to what net zero means. It does not mean we can sit back, change nothing and then buy our way out by paying for CO2 removals. It means decarbonise everything we possibly can. CO2 removals will only be available to cover the emissions from a few extremely hard to decarbonise sectors. This should be the guiding principle for any organisation setting out to achieve a net-zero target.
In order to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement of keeping temperature rise “well below” 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C, the world as a whole needs to cut emissions to “net zero” by around the middle of this century.
A growing number of nations and jurisdictions have now set targets to reach net zero – indeed such targets now cover 90% of the world’s emissions. The UK, the US and the EU have set their net-zero targets for 2050. This is in line with what is required for the world as a whole. Is this enough? There is an argument that those who have financial resources, and have greater historical responsibility for past emissions, should aim to cut emissions further and faster.
China’s net-zero target is for before 2060, and India’s is for 2070. Being pitched into the second half of the century, these targets put the Paris Agreement goals in doubt. But from another perspective, why should countries with less average historic responsibility for emissions volunteer to curb their emissions at the same pace as the big historical emitters in Europe and North America?
The world desperately needs leaders who will commit to doing more than the average – to going further and faster because it is the right thing to do. Germany has fired the starting pistol on this race to the top by advancing its national net-zero target from 2050 to 2045. Other nations should follow.
Where does this leave the Bartlett? The Bartlett is a faculty within UCL, London’s Global University. UCL has benefitted from London and the UK’s accumulation of wealth driven by several centuries of consumption of fossil fuels and other resources – this gives us a historic responsibility to lead in the transition away from fossil fuels. We also aim to be thought leaders within the global community. As such we feel it is right to aim for an ambitious net-zero target that goes significantly further and faster than the average rate of reduction required for the world as a whole.
But UCL already has a net-zero target – isn't The Bartlett part of UCL?
Yes – UCL announced its ambition to become a net-zero institution as part of its Sustainability Strategy, launched in 2019. And yes, The Bartlett is part of UCL, so it would have been included under this target anyway.
But climate action requires action on multiple levels. There will certainly be aspects of our target that we can’t achieve on our own – we’ll need to work closely with our colleagues at Sustainable UCL to achieve these. But there will also be aspects of the target that can only be delivered at the Faculty level, or at the level of the schools or institutes that make up the Faculty. By declaring our own target that aligns with UCL’s, we are making clear our commitment to taking action at all of these levels.
Why should individual organisations set targets?
Net-zero targets are increasingly being adopted by all kinds of organisations. In addition to The Bartlett and UCL, the Universities of Glasgow, Keele, Leeds and Northampton are amongst the higher education institutions that have also adopted 2030 net-zero targets; and increasing numbers of private sector organisations are also pledging to reach net zero.
But is there any point in such declarations – surely what matters are the national targets and pledges, such as those being haggled over at the recent COP26 in Glasgow?
I believe that organisational net-zero pledges are important, because nation states are made up of people and organisations. While international negotiations between nation states are necessary, the positions that can be taken by representatives of nation states are strongly influenced by the situation within their country. The more progress that is being undertaken within a country, the more emboldened negotiators from that country will be to push for more progress on the international stage.
Leadership at every level matters – and organisational net-zero targets are an important way of showing leadership on climate action.
What's our approach?
The Bartlett net-zero strategy will need to address the emissions from the energy we use in our buildings, from the things we buy, from our travel and from our construction projects.
Decarbonising buildings means ensuring we can source our electricity from either on-site or off-site zero-carbon sources, as well as confronting the tricky of issue of providing heat in a zero-carbon way. To cut the emissions associated with the things we buy we first need to work out what those emissions are, using data from “life cycle analysis” of materials and products, and then consider how we can reduce what we buy, or reuse and recycle materials and products. Addressing our travel emissions will be difficult, as interactions with other countries are central to much of our research and teaching. We need to be thoughtful, but also ambitious and innovative as we confront seriously the balance between our role as a global university and the impact that our travel has. Any new construction projects should aim to emulate the highest standards in energy efficient performance, as well as considering the emissions embodied in the materials used.
At the same time, we need to think seriously about negative emissions. It is likely we will need to use negative emissions to offset the small remainder of emissions that we can’t avoid in any other way. But we must ensure that any negative emissions we purchase meet high standards of sustainability, and that we do not purchase quantities of negative emissions that are out of proportion to our fair share of what will be an extremely limited global supply.
In each area we will operate a simple four-step process:
- Define the scope of the emissions we are committing to reduce
- Identify what our emissions are at the moment
- Identify the best measures to reduce them
- Monitor the impact of these measure
We will also be transparent about this process, and report how we get on this blog series.
In the next blog, I’ll be focussing on our emissions from the energy we use in buildings – how are we going to decarbonise the electricity and heat supplies that power and warm the spaces where we work?
Until next time.
Image: Rob Morton on Unsplash