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UCL experts advise UK's Committee on Climate Change

2 May 2019

The recommendation by the Committee on Climate Change to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 is “achievable” with the right policy reforms and should be seen as an ‘industrial opportunity” according to UCL's two experts who advised the independent body.

power plant pollution

Professors Jim Watson and Paul Ekins (UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources) chaired Groups which fed into the CCC’s latest report ‘Net Zero – The UK’s Contribution to Stopping Global Warming’ and informed key recommendations.

Achieving ‘net zero’ by the middle of the century is in line with the UK’s commitment under the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb the release of polluting gases that cause climate change.

Professor Jim Watson, Chair of the Expert Advisory Group on reaching net-zero emissions in the UK and Professor of Energy Policy in the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources said: “A transition to a net-zero UK economy is technically achievable. The main question is whether it can be delivered in practice. In addition to adopting a net zero target, the Government will need to implement fundamental and wide ranging policy reforms that will be necessary to achieve this goal by 2050.

“These reforms need to ensure that climate change mitigation becomes a central goal of the UK’s economic policy - and not just a matter of climate change and energy policy. This means a central role for the Treasury, monitoring emissions as closely as we monitor GDP growth and employment, and ensuring that all Government decisions are compatible with a net zero pathway. It is also crucial that the Government strategy for net zero provides the right incentives for businesses, and has justice at its heart. If the costs and benefits of the net zero transition are not distributed fairly, there is a high risk it will be derailed.”

Global average temperatures have already risen by 1ºC from pre-industrial levels, driving changes in our climate that are increasingly apparent, such as rising sea levels and more extreme weather. In the last ten years, global pledges to reduce emissions have reduced the forecast of global warming from above 4ºC by the end of the century to around 3ºC.

The CCC’s recommended targets cover all sectors of the UK, Scottish and Welsh economies, are achievable with known technologies alongside improvements in people’s everyday lives and should be put into law as soon as possible, according to the report.

Professor Paul Ekins, Chair of the Expert Advisory Group on the costs and benefits of achieving net zero and Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources said: “Hopefully the CCC net zero report will lay to rest once and for all the misperception that deep decarbonisation is either impossibly difficult or impossibly expensive. The Advisory Group on Costs and Benefit looked in detail at the opportunities for decarbonisation and the associated costs, and came to the unequivocal conclusion that the net zero target in 2050 could be achieved with at worst small costs and possibly with significant net economic benefits.

“The assumptions underlying this conclusion are that innovation in low-carbon technologies continues through support for their development and large-scale deployment, and that government policy is credible, consistent and long-term, employing both regulation and market-based instruments in an appropriate mix. While achieving ‘net zero’ by 2050 will be challenging, it should be seen as an industrial opportunity to enable UK businesses to engage in some of the fastest-growing market sectors in the world. With its Clean Growth Strategy, the government has some of the building blocks for this effort in place. It now needs to greatly accelerate its implementation of the ideas it sets out there and those in the CCC report.”

The CCC’s report, which was requested by the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments in light of the Paris Agreement and the IPCC’s Special Report in 2018 finds that:

  • The foundations are in place throughout the UK and the policies required to deliver key pillars of a net-zero economy are already active or in development. These include (but aren’t limited to): a supply of low-carbon electricity, efficient buildings and low-carbon heating
  • Policies will have to ramp up significantly for a ‘net-zero’ emissions target to be credible, given that most sectors of the economy will need to cut their emissions to zero by 2050.
  • The overall costs of the transition to a net-zero economy are manageable but they must be fairly distributed.

The report shows there are multiple benefits of a transition to a zero-carbon economy, including benefits to people’s health from better air quality, less noise from quieter vehicles, healthier travelling / commuting options through cycling and walking, healthier diets and increased recreational benefits from changes to land use.

The UK could also receive an industrial boost as it leads the way in low-carbon products and services including electric vehicles, finance and engineering, carbon capture and storage and hydrogen technologies with potential benefits for exports, productivity and jobs.

Lord Deben, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Changesaid:

We can all see that the climate is changing and it needs a serious response. The great news is that it is not only possible for the UK to play its full part – we explain how in our new report – but it can be done within the cost envelope that Parliament has already accepted. The Government should accept the recommendations and set about making the changes needed to deliver them without delay.““We can all see that the climate is changing and it needs a serious response. The great news is that it is not only possible for the UK to play its full part – we explain how in our new report – but it can be done within the cost envelope that Parliament has already accepted. The Government should accept the recommendations and set about making the changes needed to deliver them without delay.“We can all see that the climate is changing and it needs a serious response. The great news is that it is not only possible for the UK to play its full part – we explain how in our new report – but it can be done within the cost envelope that Parliament has already accepted. The Government should accept the recommendations and set about making the changes needed to deliver them without delay.


Professor Robert Lowe, Director of the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Energy Resilience and the Built Environment (ERBE) commented:

The report released today by the Committee on Climate Change is potentially one of the most important produced yet on this subject.  It comes at a time when, despite great strides in decarbonisation of the UK electricity system, it is clear that the UK is not on track to meet its 80% decarbonisation target.“The report released today by the Committee on Climate Change is potentially one of the most important produced yet on this subject.  It comes at a time when, despite great strides in decarbonisation of the UK electricity system, it is clear that the UK is not on track to meet its 80% decarbonisation target.
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One can quibble with some of the detail in the report, but the overall message is clear. Unless the UK is content to act in a way that is unlikely to be forgiven by future generations, it must embrace a Net-Zero emissions target, and its practical implications.  What is clear from the evidence, and from this report, is that a target of Net Zero is as different from the 80% reduction target enshrined in the Climate Change Act, as the latter is from simply maintaining the current status quo.  The differences are qualitative and not merely quantitative.  

Among the many memorable passages in this report, is this:

“However, this is only possible if clear, stable and well-designed policies to reduce emissions further are introduced across the economy without delay. Current policy is insufficient for even the existing targets.”

How this contrasts with what we have become used to.  With the exception of the Climate Change Act, UK Energy Policy has been characterised by confusion, expedience, timidity, and a determination to avoid drawing obvious conclusions.  This criticism is one which applies across almost the whole of the political spectrum, and to every government since John Major’s.  It is therefore not one that can be used to the advantage of any of the major political parties, a fact that could yet provide the basis for an enduring and essential political consensus for action.

Media coverage 

  • UCL Energy Institute Director Prof. Neil Strachan talks to BBC Radio 4 about zero-carbon cities of the future. Read more here.
  • UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources Director Prof. Paul Ekins gives comment on the CCC report in the Guardian. Read more here. 
  • UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources Deputy Director Prof. Michael Grubb interviewed about the CCC report by Channel 4 News. Read more here.

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Media contact:

Kate Corry

Tel: +44 (0)20 3108 6995

Email: k.corry@ucl.ac.uk