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The UK’s Climate Change Committee recommends UK moves to zero net carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. What are the implications?

The UK’s Climate Change Committee recommends UK moves to zero net carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. What are the implications?

John Redwood

in Features


The UK Climate Change Committee has just published a new report on what needs to be done to cut carbon emissions further. In the spirit of the Paris accord, which the UK and many other countries signed in 2015 it recommends the UK moves to zero net carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Some think the UK and others should go further, faster. The UK is one of the world leaders at reducing its output of carbon dioxide. It is in contrast to Mr Trump’s US, which has pulled out of the Paris Agreement. The administration wants the US to exploit more oil and gas resource, and to build bigger industrial output based on cheap oil-and-gas-based energy.

The UK has made more progress than most in cutting carbon dioxide emissions from the 1990s levels when it first became a matter of global concern. According to the report, the UK has reduced emissions by 41% from 1990 levels by 2016, whilst GDP has risen by 68%. In contrast, the G7 countries as a whole have seen their GDP rise by 63%, but their emissions only fell by 5% over the same period. These figures under international accounting conventions for greenhouse gases exclude aviation and shipping. By last year, UK emissions were down by 44% . (Chapter 7 of their report) The US and China are the two largest contributors of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases to the world totals. The US uses 20 tons of CO2 equivalent per person per year. China is on 10, the EU on 9 and the UK on 7. The fastest growing contributor has been China, with its rapid industrialisation based on substantial use of fossil fuels including coal.

Industrial strife

The pursuit of low or zero carbon policies is forcing considerable change in the way we live and the industries that serve us. In order to see through the ambitions to get to or near zero carbon the advocates are demanding a switch from petrol and diesel cars to electric cars. They want electricity generated from renewables, not from fossil fuels. They advocate much more thermal insulation in buildings, and a new generation of boilers and space heaters for homes and offices. Accepting that there will still be some carbon output from human activity, they also want rapid advances in carbon capture and storage to mop up excess carbon, and want to see more trees planted to be natural absorbers of the gas. There are investment opportunities in greener energy, in fuel efficiency and in general electrification. The more we electrify trains and cars and home appliances and heating, the more there will be a need for substantial increases in renewable energy capacity.

The science of the warming effects from greenhouse gases is well established and not queried by most in the debates. Friends of the Trump administration expresses scepticism about the climate models, and remind those who are interested that changes in sun radiation levels, variations in cloud cover and water vapour and other complex weather phenomena may also have an impact on average world temperatures. Carbon dioxide is 0.04% of air. Water vapour would typically be 10 to 20 times as much and is variable. The problem with water vapour is it is both a greenhouse gas, keeping warmth in the atmosphere, and a partial shield against heat from the sun when formed as clouds.

The division over the problem and its importance is great, with the Europeans most concerned and the US more relaxed about fossil fuels. As a result we may see more industry that benefits from an old model of cheap fossil fuel energy gravitating more to the US. This will not necessarily give the EU a free run on green technologies. The US has plunged into the electric car markets, and there are many opponents of the President who agree with the Europeans and want the USA to do more to curb fossil fuels.

Keeping the lid on temperature rises

In the UK, the Climate Change Committee thinks the country could limit the national contribution to increased temperatures to an additional 0.001 degrees Centigrade between 2020 and 2070 if the UK gets to zero net carbon output by 2045. This rises to adding 0.005 degrees Centigrade if the UK sticks to the old target of cutting carbon output by 80% by 2050. (Chapter 2 of the report). It reminds us that the global battle is mainly over how much carbon dioxide the massive industrial complexes of China, the US and a few others push out in the years ahead. What is clear from present debates is those who follow business models based on fossil fuels and output of carbon dioxide will incur more costs, more tax and more pressure to cut their use in the years ahead. The German car industry is discovering just what this can mean as they grapple with new emissions controls and the governmental insistence that they switch to electric cars. Electricity companies worldwide will also be under pressure to up their renewable output. Meanwhile expect the US to grow faster by going for cheaper fuel against the wishes of world opinion.

Nothing on this website should be construed as personal advice based on your circumstances. No news or research item is a personal recommendation to deal.

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