In order to stay on track for 1.5°C warming and net zero carbon by 2050, the huge global challenge is to reduce carbon emissions by 45% over the next seven years. We won’t get close to that target without the UK’s and other governments’ adopting strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions further and more quickly than their current commitments will achieve. In the UK the government will need to intervene in markets and how citizens live in ways they find politically distasteful. Pragmatism must override ideology. The UK is not alone in facing this dilemma.
The UK has led by example in its response to climate change, but continuing boldness and conviction will be needed to keep on track to zero carbon for 2050. If we falter the rest of the world could well follow.
Given the UK has freely discharged greenhouse gases into the environment since the start of the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s, we have a moral responsibility to go the extra mile to protect the environment from irretrievable collapse.
The outlook based on the UK’s record of reducing climate threats
The UK has reduced its CO2 emissions in accordance with its targets over the last two five-year carbon budget periods. We are currently on track to meet the third, which ends this year, subject to recent downward trends being maintained. To its credit, the government has written into law the targets beyond this year. There is a danger, though, that what’s enshrined in law is treated as the upper limit rather than the lower limit of what we achieve.
Climate change action has been dominated by reduction of CO2 emissions. It is now realised that methane (CH4) deserves more attention than it has received. CH4 emissions by weight are much lower than CO2 and stay in the atmosphere much less time. However, the composition of CH4 means it is about 80 times more warming, weight for weight.
This is critical for the narrow window in which we are trying to reach net zero by 2050. Averaging methane’s impact over 100 years so it can be lumped together with CO2 to form a CO2e (equivalent) figure is of mathematical interest; but it obscures the reality that CH4 delivers its much higher warming effect in the 10 to 12 years it remains in the atmosphere.
A recent ‘UK net zero report’ led by Conservative MP Chris Skidmore points to significant gaps and missed opportunities in the UK government’s existing plans for net zero by 2050. It makes observations and 129 recommendations that deserve serious consideration, and it serves as a reference point for judging the government’s future performance.
The following are urgent priorities for reducing greenhouse emissions.
Drastically reduce methane (CH4) emissions
Substantial emissions come from the digestive process in cattle reared for meat or dairy and to a lesser extent from sheep. These animals contribute 40% of the methane emitted from the farming sector.
Reducing the methane emissions from farming will involve lowering the consumption of red meat in affluent societies like the UK.
Most mining or oil drilling activities also emit CH4 as a by-product of the extraction process, while flaming, the practice of oil rigs burning the flammable gases that are emitted from oil deposits, is a further source of methane. The CH4 released into the atmosphere during such processes is not reliably measured or controlled and reducing such emissions is difficult. But it is critical to staying on a downward emissions course towards net zero by 2050.
Speed up transition to electric vehicles
Since transport emits over 30% of CO2 in the UK, this is crucial. But there is a lack of clarity in the government’s strategies, for example with regard to battery production and charging points.
Once hailed as a great hope for British innovation and a home grown investment opportunity, the startup battery factory Britishvolt has collapsed and been bought up by Australian investors with links to the US. The UK plant will manufacture the batteries but all the core technology with associated intellectual property rights will be American owned. Many raw materials will be from Australia and the profits will be taken offshore. Yes, we benefit from jobs but not much else.
The Daily Express quotes Ben Kilbey, former Britishvolt director of communications, who claimed: “Investors were ‘spooked’ by Brexit which contributed to the firm’s collapse” and “the Government lacked a ‘clear strategy and policy’ in relation to the battery cell industry”. Furthermore, “the lack of a clear Government policy and post-Brexit uncertainties meant none of the larger, more established players were willing to step up and take the risk”.
The sale of new petrol and diesel cars is to be banned from 2030. Some hybrids will still be allowed on the market until 2035. After this, all new vehicles will be powered by renewable energy. But the rules about how these targets are to be achieved and subsequently managed have yet to be set out in detail – and manufacturers are worried that this could affect important investment decisions.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has said the number of public charging points is not increasing quickly enough to reach the government’s target of having 300,000 by 2030:
“To get to that 300,000, you need about 100 new charging points to be installed every day until 2030. Current rates, up until the end of quarter three, were about 23 a day. So the danger is the user experience gets worse before it gets better.”
This deficit will act as a brake on the transition to electric cars.
Expand renewable power generation, improve home insulation
In one hour the sun transmits more energy to the earth than all forms of energy consumed globally in a year. Only 3.3% of 29 million UK homes have solar panels installed in spite of the steeply falling cost since 1986, when they were first available for domestic use.
Government schemes to support alternative energy sources and insulate homes have come and gone over the past 15 years. For example, the renewable heat incentive scheme was withdrawn at the end of March last 2022.
In 2013 grants for insulation were axed and so installation virtually stopped. One scheme for providing insulation now sits within the Help to Heat energy scheme, of which £1.5bn, is available to help with insulation, amongst other measures for low-income households in England. It will be made available to local authorities and social housing providers with the aim of upgrading 130,000 homes.
However, in 2019 the House of Commons business, energy and industrial strategy committee found that there is significant potential for more insulation to be installed:
“Across homes in the UK there is remaining cost-effective potential for around 20 million insulation measures to 2035, and 17 million in England.”
British banks to stop financing fossil fuel emissions globally
It is disingenuous to applaud our contribution to carbon emissions without recognising that UK banks continue to fund fossil fuel projects.
In 2009, the G20 group of countries pledged to phase out ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies, which have long been seen as an obstacle to fighting climate change. Fourteen years later, global subsidies for oil and gas producers are estimated to be higher than ever before. And the UK offers allowances (tax relief in effect to fossil fuel interests) that put us at very top of the list of offenders.
In spite of many of Britain’s leading banks joining the Net Zero Banking Alliance in 2021, 24 large banks have supplied $33bn in funding for new oil and gas projects, ShareAction estimates. There are serious questions about the banks’ commitments to moving away from any new fossil fuel investments. The international picture is no better, as reported in January in The Energy Mix.
This is an area where government intervention could be necessary if the banks don’t live up to international agreements reached in 2015 at the Paris COP.
If you want to find out what your own bank is doing visit this site.
No new exploration licences, coal mine approval or fracking projects
The government has issued over 100 licences for exploring fossil fuel sources. ‘Energy security’ was Jacob Rees-Mogg’s justification last October. Using energy security as a pretext for boosting exploitation of domestic fossil fuel exploitation is the opposite of the strategy called for.
All energy produced from fossil fuel sources adds to greenhouse emissions. All new emissions add to the perilous level of greenhouse gases already locked into the atmosphere. They risk putting zero carbon by 2050 out of reach. Rather than ‘drill baby drill’, the oil companies should be obliged by the government to divert the proposed costs of exploration and record windfall profits into funding the faster transition to zero carbon by 2050, preferably bringing forward progress to 2030.
We must be vociferous in exposing and condemning any departures from this course. Take for example BP’s recent announcement that it has back-tracked on its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, which were part of its previous commitment to achieving net zero carbon in 2050. They are now planning to increase their output of oil and gas up to 2030. The precise implications for global warming of BP’s announcement still needs to be assessed but it will only make things worse. This development becomes even more alarming if other oil producers follow BP’s retrograde lead.
On fracking, blocking of onshore wind arrays, deficiencies in providing electric battery recharging points, new coal mines being approved in Cumbria, new licences issued for oil and gas exploration the government should be challenged at every turn.
The government must be required to respond to BP’s reversal on their zero-carbon strategy and conduct an assessment of the effects of this U-turn on the UK’s net zero carbon pathway and the wider effect of emissions on global heating.
Meanwhile the Home Office sets out to constrain climate change activists seeking to raise awareness of the dire consequences of climate change. It’s as if the activists are the problem, not climate change or past failures by government to make climate change a top priority. So we find ourselves on the brink of climate breakdown. More of us must become activist when the government fails to act or fails to live up to its own commitments to prevent it.