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How to get to net zero

World leaders have been told they need to reduce carbon emissions to nil by 2050 to avoid environmental disaster. But their plans fall dramatically short of the lifestyle changes needed to save the planet.

The images coming out of Australia in recent weeks have been horrifying. Against eerie blood-red skies, we’ve seen firefighters bravely attempting to tackle walls of flames 70 metres high, a child in a smoke mask seeking refuge from the blazes in a rowing boat, the charred remains of a kangaroo burnt while trying to escape, and koalas trapped in burning trees. The statistics have been equally shocking. Some have estimated that over one billion animals have been killed, together with 34 people, and thousands of homes destroyed. The area covered by the fires is over 10 million hectares, roughly the size of Ireland.

Much less reported was the flooding in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, which suffered record rainfall for a single day at the turn of the year. The floods, the worst for decades, killed 66 people, and displaced 36,000. In Europe, Storm Gloria brought some of the worst flooding to France and Spain for a generation, resulting in the death of 13 people and the evacuation of thousands.

What links these catastrophes is climate change. As scientists have been telling us for years, disasters of all kinds – fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes – will become increasingly common as the planet warms. Sometimes, the predictions have been strikingly precise, such as this, from the fourth report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2007: “Increased fire danger is likely with climate change; for example, in south-east Australia the frequency of very high and extreme fire danger days is likely to rise 4 to 25 per cent by 2020 and 15 to 70 per cent by 2050.” At other times, the warnings are more general. In 2018 the IPCC published a special report on the dangers of failing to restrict global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures (“pre-industrial” is generally considered some time between 1850 and 1900). At the moment, the Earth is about 1°C warmer than pre-industrial times – that doesn’t sound very much, but it is enough to make climate-related disasters far more likely to happen and far more severe. The rise between 1.5°C and 2°C seems tiny, but the IPCC’s description of the consequences reads like a dystopian novel:

In the 2030s, several catastrophic years occur while global warming starts to approach 2°C. There are major heatwaves on all continents, with deadly consequences in tropical regions and Asian megacities, especially for those ill-equipped for protecting themselves and their communities from the effects of extreme temperatures. Droughts occur in regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea, central North America, the Amazon region and southern Australia… Intense flooding occurs in high latitude and tropical regions, in particular in Asia, following increases in heavy precipitation events… A two-year drought in the Great Plains in the US and a concomitant drought in eastern Europe and Russia decrease global crop production, resulting in major increases in food prices and eroding food security. Poverty levels increase to a very large scale, and the risk and incidence of starvation increase considerably as food stores dwindle in most countries.

That extra half a degree will result in the extinction of twice as many plants and animals; two and a half times as many people will be exposed to extreme heatwaves, ten times as much Arctic sea ice will be lost, and the decline in the annual catch of marine fisheries will be twice as high. 

To avoid these dire consequences, we need to take much bolder steps than we are now. As things stand, even if every country in the world met the targets they have set for reducing carbon emissions, we won’t come close to limiting global warming to 1.5° – rather, the world by 2100 will be 3°C warmer. If those countries do not do what they have promised, if we carry on emitting greenhouse gases at the present, suicidal rate, the rise will be greater than 4°C, making the Earth hotter than it has been for millions of years. Humans have never lived in a world so hot. Some people doubt that we can. 

The IPCC suggest that if we are to keep warming to 1.5°C by 2100, we have to get carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, which is why the UK’s own Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommended that target and why the government has adopted it. But having a target is one thing, knowing how you are going to achieve it is another. Cutting carbon emissions involves making many potentially unpopular decisions. And so far, the UK government has revealed remarkably little.

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According to official figures, UK annual greenhouse gas emissions are now 42 per cent lower than they were in 1990. That is good news – but not quite as good as it sounds. It has been achieved largely by changing the way we produce electricity, moving away from coal and towards gas and renewables. That is the easy bit: unless you work in the coal industry, it does not greatly affect your life. When you turn on a light or the television, it generally makes no difference to you whether the electricity comes from the sun, wind, gas or coal. But, there is very little room left to reduce our emissions further by using less coal (it now accounts for less than 5 per cent of our power generation). We need to eliminate gas and expand the use of renewables in producing electricity, but most of what we have to do to get that 42 per cent figure to a 100 per cent reduction involves changing the way we live. 

How could the government help us – perhaps, in some cases, force us – to make those changes? In its 2019 report, Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming, the CCC warned the government that “a net-zero greenhouse target is not credible unless policy is ramped up significantly”. The UK must make firm plans, the report argues, for housing and heating; industrial emissions; carbon capture and storage; road transport; agriculture; and aviation and shipping. The committee is most concerned about transport, which has replaced power as  the sector with the highest rates of greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions from surface transport (road and rail) and shipping have not changed much since 1990: in aviation they have risen sharply, now double what they were back then. Disturbingly, the CCC envisages a 25 per cent growth in aviation demand by 2050, which, they calculate will then account for 30 per cent of our emissions total. 

In 2018, the Department of Transport published The Road to Zero: Next steps towards cleaner road transport and delivering our Industrial Strategy. The proposals are pathetically unambitious and have been severely criticised by the CCC, which said the target date of 2040 for phasing out petrol and diesel cars, set by the then transport secretary Chris Grayling, was too late, and in any case, “plans to deliver it are too vague”. A date closer to 2030, the CCC insisted, “would save motorists money, cut air and noise pollution and align to the net-zero challenge”. The government recently set a new deadline of 2035.

A wider problem with the DoT’s strategy is that it is almost entirely based on switching to electric vehicles. In 2019 a letter written by Professor Richard Herrington of the Natural History Museum and signed by several of the UK’s leading geologists, raised concerns over the quantities of relatively rare resources that would be needed to replace every petrol and diesel car in the country with an electric vehicle. This would, Herrington wrote, require, “just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters of the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018”. 

With cobalt, in particular, there are other problems. Most of the world’s supply comes from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there have been credible allegations of child labour, environmental damage and widespread corruption. An alternative source has been identified on ocean floors, but extracting it would not be without ecological dangers (our oceans are in a bad enough state as it is without the development of large-scale open mining on their beds). It would also be expensive. And then there is the energy required to make the batteries and the vehicles, most of which at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, is not carbon neutral.


Don’t have a cow: scientists have recommended reducing meat consumption by at least 50 per cent. Credit: Sam Pelly/Millennium Images, UK

Many experts believe that the less well known hydrogen fuel cell technology, which uses hydrogen to generate electricity, is a much better option, in the long term at least. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have the advantage of not requiring batteries and are also extremely efficient. In five minutes they can be filled with enough hydrogen to travel up to 500 miles. The technology is new, however, and there are at present very few models, with very little infrastructure to support them. Also, most of them are currently not carbon neutral, because the hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels. Hydrogen can, though, be produced from water, offering the possibility of a genuinely carbon-free mode of transport.

It would surely be sensible to adopt a policy of simply reducing the number of cars on our roads. We need to challenge the assumption that each person needs their own car: in short, we need to change the way we live. In October 2019, the CCC published on its website a report it had commissioned from Dr Richard Carmichael of Imperial College London called Behaviour change, public engagement and Net Zero, which has not received anything like the attention it deserves. A BBC Panorama programme was based on it, but it gave the misleading impression that it was all about what individuals can do to mitigate climate change, whereas, as Carmichael makes clear, his report focuses on “how government can facilitate behavioural and societal shifts”. 

Unlike the government, Carmichael recognises the need to get people out of cars and either into buses and trains or, better, cycling or walking. And unlike the CCC, he has some suggestions for what the government can do to facilitate this. He suggests the state could finance a programme of investment “across the whole of rail and bus networks to improve services and reduce and simplify fares”. Others have gone further. Friends of the Earth has suggested that a “step change” is needed in funding which, together with regulation, would enable and require local authorities to offer free bus travel, as already happens in 100 towns and cities worldwide, including more than 30 in the US and 20 in France. 

To encourage cycling, Carmichael recommends investing in infrastructure to make it safer (the most common reason people give for not cycling is they fear it’s dangerous) and the introduction of grants for e-bikes. To discourage excessive flying, he suggests imposing an escalating levy on frequent flyers based not on how often they fly, but on mileage. It should also, he advises, take account of the greater emissions caused by business and first-class passengers, whose seats take up more space and who therefore bear a greater responsibility for a flight’s carbon footprint. And he sensibly recommends encouraging more responsible flying by “mandating that all marketing of flights show emissions information expressed in terms that are meaningful to consumers”. However, neither he nor the CCC advocate something that is surely essential – namely, a ban on any further airport expansions.

In every area, we need to think bigger. This is especially true of heating. The CCC has complained that more than ten years after the Climate Change Act was passed in 2008, there is still no serious plan for decarbonising UK heating systems. Yet almost complete decarbonisation of domestic heating is required to meet its net-zero ambitions. This will be a major undertaking. At the moment, over 80 percent of homes in the UK are heated by gas, 4 per cent by oil and only 5 per cent by low-carbon alternatives. Most people are unaware of what those alternatives are. One possibility is replacing gas with heat pumps, which work by absorbing heat from the air and increasing its temperature before pumping it around your home. They need electricity to work, but that should all be generated by renewables by 2050. 

The government intends to make it mandatory to heat new homes with low carbon technologies by 2025: however, this will require policy and financial support. Retrofitting older homes is technologically straightforward, but will be expensive. 

The CCC estimates an annual cost of £15bn, and says that it would be “regressive, and would probably restrict progress, to pass the cost on fully to households”. The Treasury, it argues, should make it a priority to think about how government funds could be used to help.

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A curious gap in government policy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is diet. It is now well established, and accepted by both the IPCC and the CCC, that a plant-based diet has a much smaller carbon footprint than a meat-heavy one. A report by 37 world-leading scientists for the EAT Lancet Commission, published in 2019, recommended a reduction of at least 50 per cent in meat consumption by 2050, not just for the emissions reduction it offers, but also for improved health benefits and as the only way to feed the ten billion people the planet will by then contain. 

Such recommendations have been supported by innumerable reports. The author of one, Joseph Poore from Oxford, told the Guardian: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.” 

Animal agriculture contributes nearly 15 per cent of the total greenhouse gases emitted by human activity. It is an ecological disaster in many other ways too. It is the biggest driver in the horrific destruction of the Brazilian rainforest. It is also partly responsible for the horrendous losses in biodiversity in recent times, a responsibility it shares with climate change. Of all the mammals on Earth, just 4 per cent (by mass) are wild animals. Human beings account for 36 per cent and the remaining 60 per cent is livestock. Globally, 72 billion land animals are killed every year for food. Our meat-heavy diet is also bad for our health. Among the conditions caused or made worse by eating too much meat and dairy products are: obesity, cardiovascular disease, strokes, various cancers, coronary heart disease and diabetes.

Given all that, the CCC is remarkably cautious in its recommendations to the government on diet. Its most ambitious scenario involves only a 20 per cent shift reduction in beef, lamb and dairy consumption. It concedes that this is less than the scale of change supported by the government’s present dietary guidelines, but claim that it would nevertheless “require a faster shift than is currently under way” – which tells you how much notice is taken of guidelines at present.

We can and should be more ambitious than this. There is a movement, particularly among young people, away from meat and dairy and towards plant-based foods, sales of which have risen enormously. A recent YouGov survey found that a quarter of 18-year-olds are vegetarian or vegan. This trend is driven largely by environmental concerns, and is one the government could help to accelerate. It could, for example, take steps to increase awareness of the environmental damage caused by animal farming. In its latest report, Land Use: Policies for a Net Zero UK (2020), the CCC suggests that the public sector could take a lead by offering vegan options with all meals. It also suggests measures to change behaviour, including, if necessary, government regulations and pricing mechanisms.

Another good suggestion is making environmental labelling mandatory, as Denmark has committed to doing. The labels could indicate the impact that producing the food had on global warming, water scarcity, pesticide toxicity and biodiversity. The government could also do more to incentivise farmers to move from animal farming to growing fruit, vegetables and grains. At the moment, between 69 and 79 per cent of the direct payments made by the EU to farmers goes to those producing livestock and fodder, making their products artificially cheap. Brexit offers us the opportunity to change that, shifting any subsidy funding towards sustainable plant-based foods. An intriguing piece of research published earlier last year is Eating Away at Climate Change with Negative Emissions by Helen Harwatt and Matthew N Hayek. The report shows how a transition to a plant-based diet would not just reduce carbon emissions, but could also be part of a process of achieving negative emissions – ie absorbing rather than emitting greenhouse gases. 

Because of, among other things, the growth in aviation that the CCC envisages, all of its suggested scenarios of getting to net zero emissions have to include some ways of absorbing carbon dioxide. There is a technological way of doing this called carbon capture and storage. This is a process of capturing carbon dioxide, from the air or from an industrial source such as a factory or a power plant, and then sending it by pipeline to be stored in a deep geological formation such as an oil field, a gas field or a coal seam. The CCC’s strategy involves incredibly optimistic assumptions about how much carbon will be captured by such systems. Its scenarios for getting to net zero involve capturing and storing 75-175 million tonnes of CO² by 2050. The higher figure in that range is nearly five times as much CO² as is emitted annually by the entire UK aviation sector. There are two reasons why this looks like wishful thinking: there are at present no carbon capture facilities in operation in the UK; and it is extremely expensive, at £200 per tonne.

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Of course, carbon capture and storage devices exist in nature. They’re called trees, and we need to plant an enormous number of them. Both the CCC plan and the 2019 Conservative manifesto set a target of 30,000 hectares of afforestation (new growth) a year, but the CCC admits that what has been achieved for the last ten years is less than a third of that.

Harwatt and Hayek consider what would happen if we abandoned animal farming altogether in the UK, letting all the land that had been used for pasture return to nature, and turning all the land that had previously been used to grow crops to feed animals (more than half our total cropland) over to growing plant-based food for human beings instead. The results are dramatic. Agriculture, instead of contributing to the UK’s carbon emissions (by 2050 it will, like aviation, account for about 30 per cent of our total) would be reducing them at a rate of 108 million tonnes a year. In the process we would provide more natural habitats for wildlife and significantly improve our own environment. 

Although this is an enticing prospect, nobody believes that we are going to completely abandon animal farming. What Harwatt and Hayek have done, however, is show what a large price we pay for our eating habits, and how important it is to change them. Even if we do not all go vegan, we all ought to eat much less meat and dairy. If we could also change how we travel, and how we heat our buildings, then we could achieve that net zero target, while at the same time improving our health and landscape. It can be done, but, it cannot be left to individuals or to the market. We need the state to take the lead.

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Can we expect Boris Johnson’s government to rise to this challenge? With its large parliamentary majority, it would be able to push through the necessary measures. But does it really want to? In his election victory speech, Johnson promised “to make this country the cleanest, greenest on Earth, with the most far-reaching environmental programme… you the people of this country voted to be carbon neutral in this election – you voted to be carbon neutral by 2050. And we’ll do it.”

The UK is hosting this year’s UN climate change summit, COP26, which will be held in Glasgow in November. Boris Johnson would surely love to be seen as the man who “got net zero done” and achieved what the world desperately needs, namely international cooperation to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

The appointment of Mark Carney, the outgoing governor of the Bank of England, as the financial adviser for COP26 is an encouraging sign that Johnson is serious about climate change.

On the other hand, the Conservative manifesto does not inspire much hope (and nor does the sacking of Claire O’Neill as president of the COP26 summit). The pledge to give £800m to establish carbon capture and storage facilities – backed by Johnson’s vague and unpersuasive ramblings about how “technology” will solve climate change – give the impression that the strategy will be to carry on burning fossil fuels at the present rate in the hope that the carbon emitted will be absorbed by a combination of trees and carbon capture. This impression is reinforced by the manifesto, which stated:  “We believe that the North Sea oil and gas industry has a long future ahead and know the sector has a key role to play as we move to a net zero economy.” This last claim is bizarre. The only way the oil and gas industry could play a key role in moving to net zero is by closing itself down.

Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia, has been widely derided for his cavalier attitude to climate change and his commitment to the coal industry. Three years ago, when serving as treasurer, he brought a lump of coal into the Australian parliament, saying, “This is coal. Don’t be afraid.” It was an almost unbelievably ill-advised and stupid stunt that has now come to haunt him. 

Johnson should learn from Morrison’s mistake that showing a commitment to the fossil fuel industry is not the way to establish yourself as a leader in the battle against climate change. On this issue, more than any other, we need our governments to provide leadership. The fires in Australia and the flooding in France, Spain and Indonesia provide vivid warnings of what awaits us if they fail to do so.

Ray Monk is a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Southampton. Ruth Buckley-Salmon is a postgraduate research student in geography and environmental science

This article appears in the 07 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit