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Climate Emergencies and Net Zero – what you need to know

The UK parliament has declared a climate emergency. How have we got to this stage, what is a climate emergency and what action are organisations taking?

Thursday October 17, 2019

Global scientific data supports action

The action follows a highly critical 33 page report publicised in 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.

The report focused on the impact of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Limiting warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C significantly reduces the climate change risks according to Professor Jim Skea, who co-chairs the IPCC.

What’s alarming is the scale of the challenge ahead of us to ensure we achieve these targets and do not allow the situation to escalate further.

Five steps to achieving the 1.5°C have been announced:

  1. Global emissions of CO2 need to decline by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030
  2. Renewables are estimated to provide up to 85% of global electricity by 2050
  3. Coal is expected to reduce to close to zero
  4. Up to seven million sq km of land will be needed for energy crops (a bit less than the size of Australia)
  5. Global net zero emissions by 2050.

Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement brings together nations towards a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change. It was originally signed by 196 countries back in 2016.

In line with the IPCC report its core aim is to keep the global temperature increase this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. In particular, to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C.

2019 – a watershed year for climate change?

Together with the impact of Greta Thunberg – the 16 year old Swedish activist – there have been a number of key factors driving the climate change movement this year. At Glastonbury festival in June 2019, 2,000 festival goers joined protestors to stage a procession across the site.

At the United Nations Climate Action Summit in late September you may have missed the news that Russia, the world’s fourth largest polluter will finally join the agreement. This announcement was overshadowed by the stirring “You have stolen my dreams” headlines surrounding Greta Thunberg’s appearance. Hailed as “the voice of the planet” she’s already been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite the raised awareness there are real fears that most of the world’s biggest firms are ‘unlikely’ to meet the targets set. Only a fifth of companies remain on track according to fresh analysis by investment data provider Arabesque S-Ray. Of 3,000 listed business only 18% have disclosed their plans.

UK reaction

In reaction to the IPCC report, UN Paris Agreement and other related research findings and movements, the UK public sector is taking positive, proactive steps to mitigate climate change risks.

Councillor Carla Danyer led the charge in Bristol by first declaring a climate emergency and this has sparked a wave of similar responses.

In June 2019, the UK became the first major economy to pass a net zero emissions law. The new target will require the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Net zero means any emissions would be balanced by schemes to offset an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, such as planting trees or using technology like carbon capture and storage. Other countries setting similar targets include Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and France as well as the US state of California.

Many UK councils, NHS Trusts and universities have publically declared their long term targets. Some aiming for speedier action by declaring net zero 2030 targets. These include Ipswich Borough, Vale of Glamorgan and Telford & Wrekin councils.

Unsurprisingly, Bristol University is one of the leading educational facilities leading the way. To date they’ve cut carbon emissions by 27% and are well on their way to achieving their target to become carbon neutral by 2030. The University of Cambridge, along with others, has set a net zero target of 2038 and has announced it is adopting science-based targets. On one website – climateemergency.uk – 228 councils are listed as having signed up to the targets.

In Boris Johnson’s first speech as Prime Minister, he affirmed the UKs commitment to a net zero future. Johnson proclaimed “Our Kingdom in 2050… will no longer make any contribution whatsoever to the destruction of our precious planet brought about by carbon emissions,” he said. “Because we will have led the world in delivering that net zero target.”

Steps towards a better future

According to the Centre for Alternative Technology (CATs) Zero Carbon Britain research a modern, zero emissions society is possible using technology available today.

Below we’ve outlined some key initiatives that can help the UK achieve its net zero ambitions:

  • Businesses implementing science-based targets.
  • Improving built environment efficiencies. Upgrading old buildings and ensuring new buildings must meet higher energy efficiency standards.
  • A shift to electric vehicles and the continued battery storage revolution.
  • Decentralised energy. Home and local energy generation.
  • Shift to renewable energy sources.
  • New policy.

The Aldersgate Group issued a green policy manifesto to Boris Johnson on 1 August 2019. They are a politically impartial, multi-stakeholder alliance championing a competitive and environmentally sustainable economy. Members of the group include Friends of the Earth, BT, M&S, Tesco, National Grid and Sky. Their green manifesto focuses on 4 key areas for the government to take decisive action and provide greater policy detail:

  • Delivering a Clean Growth Strategy Plus (CGS+) that matches the ambition of the net zero target. This should consist of a targeted update to the existing Clean Growth Strategy to increase ambition where required (for example on zero emission vehicle roll-out). Plus it should incorporate concrete policies that accelerate private sector investment to decarbonise priority sectors. These include surface transport, buildings and support the competitiveness of industry during this transition.
  • Passing an ambitious Environment Bill that safeguards environmental protections currently enshrined in EU law. They believe it must set ambitious and legally binding targets for environmental improvements in line with the vision of the 25 Year Environment Plan.
  • Implementing the Resources and Waste Strategy, through the introduction of detailed regulatory measures and fiscal incentives that drive greater resource efficiency and cut waste across the economy.
  • Building on the Green Finance Strategy, to rapidly grow private capital flows into the green infrastructure required to deliver the UK’s net zero target and the objectives set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan.

Our view

At EIC we believe new government policy is one of the most important steps needed to turn sentiment into action. Legislation relating to major energy users such as ESOS and SECR are steps in the right direction but they aren’t enough. Without doubt more effective policy is needed, to not only ensure energy and carbon is measured, but also that carbon reduction strategies are developed and implemented across the UK. Too often business cases for energy and carbon reduction are created and filed, never to be signed off.

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