Can the UK eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050?

The government wants to cut the UK's greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” by the middle of the century. Is this realistic – or a staggeringly expensive waste of time? 

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Transport, notably cars, is responsible for 28% of our greenhouse gas emissions
(Image credit: Traffic © Alamy)

What's happened?

The government has made a legally binding commitment, in the form of a statutory amendment to the Climate Change Act 2008, to cut this country's emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to "net zero" by 2050. The commitment is based on the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), a government-appointed advisory panel chaired by the ex-Tory environment minister John Gummer which published a comprehensive book-length report on the issue, "Net Zero", in May. Net zero doesn't mean no emissions at all. The idea is that any emissions after 2050 must be offset by removing a corresponding amount of carbon from the atmosphere, either by planting trees, for example, or by carbon capture and storage. It's a massive commitment for a country to make and the UK is the first to do so.

Can it actually be done?

The authors of the report (a group of academics including climatologists and economists) think so. John Gummer argues that it is the logical culmination of a path the UK has been on for years. Carbon-dioxide emissions peaked in the UK in the 1970s and have been trending downwards since, as we moved away from burning coal. Since 2000, emissions have fallen sharply to the lowest levels since 1890. In 2003, the UK adopted a long-term target of cutting CO2 emissions by 60% from 1990 levels, on the basis that it would cost between 0.5% and 2% of GDP annually by 2050. In 2008, that target was increased to 80% by 2050, with the costs estimated at between 1% and 2% of GDP. Now the government reckons it will be possible to cut emissions by 96%, leaving 4% to deal with by offsetting and carbon capture (options it concedes are currently "speculative", and depend on unproven, emerging technologies).

What would it actually involve?

Completely giving up fossil fuels, including the natural gas we use to heat our homes, as well as petrol and diesel. The biggest slice of UK emissions (28%) comes from transport, mostly cars: net zero means a swifter transition to electric vehicles and investment in charging infrastructure. Heating buildings accounts for 19%. Weaning us off gas boilers will be difficult, and it will be expensive to replace them with either hydrogen or heat pumps run on electricity. Power generation accounts for 16% of emissions: electricity will need to continue getting cleaner (renewables) and more abundant (which, some believe, will mean nuclear). Industry accounts for 23% of emissions. A big chunk of this can be cut by the shift in power generation, but some industries (eg, steel, petrochemicals and cement) will still produce a lot of CO2 (so carbon capture, utilisation and storage will be required). In addition to all this, radically improved energy storage will be necessary. And we would need to eat much less carbon-intensive food, such as red meat and dairy. Contrary to the CCC's recommendation, the government has not included aviation and shipping in its target.

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How much would it cost?

Between £20bn and £70bn a year. The CCC believes that rapid improvements in renewable energy and green technologies mean that net zero can be achieved for the same cost "envelope" (between 1% and 2% of GDP) as the previous 2008 target of 80%. The UK's GDP is currently around £2trn, so that implies a cost of between £20bn and £40bn a year. Chancellor Philip Hammond, however, reckons that estimate is too low. He cites Treasury estimates of up to £70bn a year. That equates to an HS2 every year for 30 years, suggesting a total cost well above £1trn (and maybe more than £2trn).

What do sceptics say?

That it's a hubristic, pointless waste of money. They say that transitioning to net zero is a mirage, since it's based on unproven technologies (heat pumps, hydrogen, carbon capture) and that pursuing it while other countries don't would render key industries uncompetitive. Moreover, the UK generates barely 1% of global CO2 emissions, as Dominic Lawson points out in The Sunday Times. So if we were to become carbon zero tomorrow, it would cut temperatures globally by just 0.005% by 2040, he calculates. "Someone would need to tell the planet, as neither Gaia, nor indeed any of her inhabitants, would notice the difference."

He's right, isn't he?

The UK achieving net-zero emissions would certainly have a minuscule effect on warming. But other countries are likely to commit themselves to similar targets in the coming years (the UK's target includes a review in 2024, assessing the extent to which others are following suit and, if need be, adjusting our plan accordingly). And it also ignores the fact, reckons Ed Conway in The Times, that "in the long run, investing billions in green energy may prove an enormous economic boost" to the UK that more than pays for itself, and makes this country a global leader in a massive, epoch-defining industrial sector. Clearly, it's a mammoth challenge, and there will be epic political battles in the years ahead over who will be paying for it and how. But it's also an opportunity.

Not a threat?

London is already a world leader in green finance and insurance; four out of five electric engines are made in the UK; and the low-carbon sector in Britain has been growing at a faster rate than the rest of the economy (according to government figures). All of these indicators mean that Britain should "not fear getting out in front" in terms of setting bold, decisive, challenging targets when it comes to greenhouse gases, says Camilla Cavendish in the Financial Times. "We are in a global race to decarbonise, and it is only going in one direction."

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.