Let’s embrace this fighting chance to reach net zero

Extinction Rebellion protests in London, April 2019. A big crowd of people gathered around Oxford Circus
Extinction Rebellion protests in London, April 2019 (c) Andrew Tijou https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewtijou/

Dr Ajay Gambhir, Senior Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute and contributor to the Committee on Climate Change’s Net Zero report, blogs on why we mustn’t lose this moment to accelerate the low-carbon transition.

On Thursday 2 May 2019 I attended the launch of the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC’s) latest report, which advises the government that the UK should reach net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, and equally importantly, how it should do this. My colleagues at the Grantham Institute and I had the privilege of feeding into this analysis, specifically focusing on the UK’s potential contribution to leading a global effort to reach net zero, based on its historical achievements, institutional strength and future potential to make rapid emissions cuts. At the launch, you could feel the energy, determination, pragmatism and even optimism in the room, to a level I haven’t experienced for over a decade.

Rewind ten years…

It felt similar back in late 2008, when the CCC launched its inaugural report, which advised the government that the UK’s 2050 GHG emissions should be legislated to at least 80% below its 1990 levels in the new UK Climate Change Act. This Act passed at a time when climate change had been a prominent news item and major concern for almost two years, following the publication of the landmark Stern Review on the economics of climate change, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) fourth assessment report. Both contained a clear description of the devastating impacts the world would face if it allowed temperatures to rise above the two degrees Celsius (2oC) threshold that was then thought to be a safe limit to global warming. This limit implied the UK needed to reach the recommended minimum 80% reduction by 2050, and the government duly agreed and legislated this target.

But the climate emergency faded from the public consciousness

Much then changed over the next decade. Most importantly, just as the Act passed, the global financial crisis started to be felt and states across the world shrank back their spending (following a raft of initial fiscal stimulus measures to stave off a global economic depression). Then came the rise of neo-nationalism, that seems to have marched in lockstep with enforced austerity.

It’s a remarkable achievement that, given these shocks to the world, the Paris Agreement of 2015 was still able to unite almost 200 countries into recognising that the safe threshold for global warming should be ‘well below 2oC’ and as low as 1.5oC. But, despite a brief return to the top of the headlines during the 2015 Paris climate conference, climate change has lain low on the news agenda for many years.

Back with a bang

Greta Thunberg at the European Parliament, April 2019
Greta Thunberg at the European Parliament, April 2019

In 2018, things began to change. The heatwaves, tornadoes, floods, droughts and other signs of climate change became increasingly difficult for the public to ignore. Enter the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5oC, with its unequivocal assertion that even a 2oC level of warming would be dangerous. Cue the phenomena of Greta Thunberg, the school protests and Extinction Rebellion, paving the way for a new national conversation about the oncoming ‘climate emergency’ – powerful enough to topple even Brexit at the top of the news agenda, at least for a short time.

A landmark moment for climate action?

So back to 2 May 2019. The CCC’s advice is very clear and detailed, signalling the need for continued decarbonisation of electricity generation through technologies like renewables, a complete (ideally as soon as 2030) switchover to electric vehicles, a much greater pace of installing home insulation and use of electric heat pumps, and drastic emissions reductions in agriculture and industrial manufacturing. The recommendations use currently existing technologies, but critically require an unequivocal commitment to carbon capture, which has remained elusive for years, as well as embracing the use of hydrogen as a low-carbon energy source for heating and power generation. Add to this an ambitious and rapid forest planting scheme to absorb carbon dioxide and remove it from the atmosphere, and a range of other carbon removal measures, to make sure the UK evolves into a net-zero economy without having to rely on buying emissions removals or reductions overseas.

Get ready for a transformation

The result would be completely transformative for the UK, requiring a world-leading effort and contribution from every government department, local authority, business and citizen in the UK. Remarkably, owing to the stunning cost reductions we’ve seen in renewables, batteries and electric vehicles, net zero would cost no more to deliver than what the CCC estimated our current target would cost back in 2008. And this expenditure would be more-than-offset by a fundamental set of improvements to our lives, with greener, cleaner local environments and new industrial growth opportunities.

Will we manage to do this? Yes, but only if the government puts the requisite policies and measures in place, and if the rest of us embrace the changes in technologies, behaviours and attitudes that must deliver this transformation. I am still feeling the optimism.

Grantham Institute researchers Dr Ajay GambhirNeil GrantDr Alexandre Koberle, and Dr Tamaryn Napp produced a report entitled The UK’s contribution to a Paris-consistent global emissions reduction pathway to support the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) Net Zero report. Read it in full here

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