Project Net Zero – How the UK Plans to Neutralize Greenhouse Gas Emissions

A new report from the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has set out ambitious targets to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2050. If this is achieved, it will end the UK’s contributions to anthropogenic climate change within 30 years. The report finds that current policies for managing emissions in the UK must be strengthened, and new policies introduced, in order to fulfill the targets. 

The report defines ‘net zero’ as the point at which total active removals of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere offset any remaining emissions. Effective removal strategies will be a key part of the UK’s approach as it is difficult to completely eliminate emissions from all sectors to the point of emitting zero greenhouse gases.

The report identifies three types of emissions reduction scenarios: core options, further ambition options and speculative options. By acting on as many of the proposed scenarios as possible, the authors believe it is possible to see a reduction in the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions within the commitments made by the Paris Agreement. Those that fall under ‘core options’ are defined as those required under any climate action. Measures such as phasing out the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040, removing the five key biodegradable waste streams from landfill by 2030 and expanding current commitments to renewable energy are believed to be key to cutting emissions. The implementation of policies such as these, according to the report, will reduce annual emissions by 300 MtCO2e to 193 MtCO2e in 2050 compared with 2017 levels. A reduction to this extent would place the UK’s emissions at 77% below 1990 levels.

As emissions reductions from ‘core options’ leaves the UK 23% shy of its commitment to net zero overall emissions, the CCC recommends combining these measures with those defined as ‘further ambition’ and ‘speculative options’. In order to go beyond an 80% reduction in emissions, adoption of ‘further ambition’ measures, as a minimum, will be necessary. Initiatives such as fully decarbonising the country’s electricity supply, ensuring all cars and vans on the road are electric by 2050 and increasing recycling rates to 70% would bring the UK closer to net zero. In this area, however, even 10% of reductions would require a significant change to societal and consumer behaviours, particularly concerning food.

Likewise, in the options defined as speculative, the CCC states that a 50% reduction in beef, lamb and dairy consumption would be desirable for bringing down emissions and freeing land for afforestation. This reduction in meat consumption alone, the report says, could save an additional 11 MtCO2e by 2050. The report recognises that, in order to reduce UK emissions to net zero by 2050, all the options under ‘core’ and ‘further ambition’, plus some of those under ‘speculative’ are required.

On the 12 June this year, the Government enshrined the 2050 net zero commitment in law making Britain the first major economy to do so. The amendment to the Climate Change Act commits the UK to meeting the recommendations laid out in the report.

In order to meet this target, significant efforts in all economic sectors need to be made to bring down emissions. Improving the sustainability of and reducing the emissions associated with sectors such as agriculture, will have a significant impact. As a significant emitter of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, efforts to make agriculture and food production more sustainable, rather than solely reducing consumption of certain food groups, is also important to meeting the commitment. Through improved farming methods and better processes, it will be possible to reduce the emissions from agricultural production in the UK, without necessarily having to significantly reduce consumption of our favourite foods.

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