Whilst in many respects I welcome the headline framing of the Government’s “net-zero” proposal, sift amongst the detail and all is far from rosy
By Kevin Anderson
Tyndall Centre – University of Manchester
CEMUS – Uppsala University
11th June 2019
1). although on the one hand the Government’s “net -zero” proposal is for the UK to make its ‘fair’ contribution to delivering on the Paris Agreement, on the other it is recklessly pursuing UK shale gas (an energy source that is 75% carbon by mass!). Moreover, it recently celebrated both BP’s new Clair Ridge oil platform, with its accompanying quarter of a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, and the new Glengorm gas field, adding a further 100 millions tonnes of CO2. To top it all, they plan to expand Heathrow, facilitating more flights with more fossil fuel consumption and hence more carbon emissions (even with efficiency improvements across the sector).
2). the mitigation proposals of Government and its Committee on Climate Change (the CCC) rely in large measure on future and highly speculative Negative Emission Technologies (NETs). These technologies exist, at best, as small pilot schemes, and often only in the imagination and computers of professors and entrepreneurs. So in reality we are passing the buck on to our children to invent and deploy technologies to suck the CO2 out of the air that we choose to continue to emit today. The unprecedented and planetary scale of NETs assumed by the Government and the CCC needs to be understood. Already the tentative potential of NETs is being used to undermine the requirement for immediate and widespread decarbonisation, passing further unacceptable burdens and risks onto the next generation.
3). against the advice of their own Committee on Climate Change the UK Government intend to rely on ‘international credits’ whereby they can buy so-called offsets from other countries rather than making the reductions themselves. This is typically paying poorer nations to plant trees, change industrial processes, install renewables, etc. Such developments internationally are necessary to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate commitments, but not as a means for permitting the UK’s ongoing emissions. With the UK’s world leading renewable energy potential we should be making the reductions ourselves not paying others to do it for us.
4). the Government and the CCC foresee emissions from the UK’s aviation sector continuing at today’s very high levels (currently around 12% of UK CO2) out to 2050 and on through subsequent decades. So any claim made of the UK being zero carbon by 2050, is simply not true. The scale of anticipated aviation emissions is such that this single sector will consume around one third of the UK’s Paris-compliant carbon budget, putting still further mitigation pressures on schools, hospitals and businesses to compensate for this privileged sector.
5). the share of the global ‘carbon budget’ that the UK Government and its Committee on Climate Change assume appropriate for the UK, is far higher than any defensible quota. So the UK not only has significant responsibility for historical emissions, but it is planning to take a disproportionately large slice of the remaining global carbon pie; colonialism thriving in 2019!
Finally, and based on work with University of Manchester & Uppsala colleagues, to meet its Paris obligations the UK must achieve zero-carbon energy by around 2035; that’s ‘real-zero’ not ‘net-zero’. This requires an immediate programme of deep cuts in energy emissions rising rapidly to over 10% p.a.; such an economy-wide agenda will need to embed equity at its core if it is to succeed mathematically and politically, as well as morally.
 NETs is also variously referred to as Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR), and previously as one form of Geo-engineering. Two other acronyms are commonly used, but are related to particular technology routes. Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS).
 Whilst a fully decarbonised energy system is achievable, there will remain some non-CO2 greenhouse gases from agriculture and food. These can certainly be reduced by changes in diets and agricultural practices, but some emissions of methane and nitrous oxide will inevitably remain. In this regard, a well-funded programme of research, development and potential deployment of NETs is required alongside improvement of ‘natural’ processes of sequestration, including forestry management, reforestation and potentially afforestation.
 The carbon budget refers to the total quantity of carbon dioxide emissions that we can dump in the atmosphere from now and out across the century if we are not to renege on our Paris 1.5-2 degree Celsius commitments.
Theresa May commits to net zero UK carbon emissions by 2050 – but aviation not properly included in that
Theresa May has sought to cement some legacy in the weeks before she steps down as prime minister by enshrining in law a commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, making Britain the first major economy to do so. This is an increase from the current target of an 80% cut on the 1990 level, by 2050. However, it is a far cry from a net zero target by 2025, that Extinction Rebellion has called for. The change is in an amendment to the Climate Change Act (2008) that was laid in parliament today. The wording just makes the change from 80% to 100%. This does make the UK the first member of the G7 nations to legislate for net zero emissions. It is a step in the right direction. However, it is a NET target, not a gross one, so it will depend on buying carbon offsets (often ineffective) from other countries (usually poorer countries), rather than the UK actually cutting CO2 emissions that much. It excludes the embodied carbon in imports. AND it does not properly include international aviation and shipping. The government just says: “For now, therefore, we will continue to leave headroom for emissions from international aviation and shipping in carbon budgets…”