What’s in a (Net Zero) date?

One of the questions that’s likely to be asked in tonight’s Channel 4 environment leader’s debate is about the target date by which the UK should reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions. In the summer the government legislated for 2050. In September Liberal Democrat conference voted for our policy paper Tackling the Climate Emergency, which argued for 2045. The Labour conference voted for 2030 (though that’s not in their manifesto). The Green Party has gone for 2030, and Extinction Rebellion campaigns for 2025. 

Against these targets, our policy can look rather cautious. 2045 seems like a long way away; doesn’t that mean that government will do nothing until a few years beforehand and then rush to hit it? I’m sure Lib Dem Voice readers know what’s wrong with that argument – although this was the approach that a Conservative minister genuinely suggested to Ed Davey when we were in government.

Arguing over the net zero target date in isolation is simplistic and misleading. In reality, reaching net zero will require enormous effort, stretching over decades and affecting all sectors of the economy; it’s not something you can leave to the last moment. The real debate we need to have is over how we plan to meet the target; what’s the policy programme that cuts emissions fast where we know how to, and lays the foundations for progress where we don’t yet know the right solutions? And when you start to think about what’s needed for electricity, heating, transport, aviation, industry, farming and land use – and how you persuade people to change the way they live their lives, because it isn’t only about government action – you start to understand why near-term targets like 2025 or 2030 are an unrealisable fantasy.

Liberal Democrats set out, in our policy paper and in the manifesto, how we can make rapid progress in cutting emissions from power generation, through accelerating the uptake of renewables, and in heat in buildings, through a massive energy efficiency programme. Between them we think we can cut UK emissions by more than half over ten years.

When you look at other sources of emissions it gets more difficult. We will have to replace gas in space heating, but we don’t yet know the most cost-effective alternative. If it’s electric it will require roughly a six-fold increase in total electricity generation capacity, and every household will have to rip out its boiler and radiators. If it’s hydrogen (the other main option) we will have to develop an entirely new country-wide industry for manufacturing hydrogen that does not now exist.

To get to zero emissions from transport, we have to replace 36 million petrol and diesel cars and light vans with electric vehicles; while demand for EVs is growing fast, in 2018 just 60,000 were sold, compared to over 2 million fossil fuel vehicles. We can try to persuade a significant number of drivers to give up their cars and switch to public transport – but building new electric buses and coaches, and electrifying the whole of the rail network, can’t be done overnight. And when we come to aviation – the fastest growing source of emissions in the UK – there is currently no cost-effective means of reducing emissions other than by flying less.

Not all greenhouse gas emissions stem from energy use: waste disposal, industrial processes like iron, steel and cement production, and almost every type of farming – especially, but not only, meat and dairy – are all sources. 

To cut emissions to zero from all of these different sectors will be a titanic effort, mobilising industry, retooling factories, inventing entirely new processes, training and retraining hundreds of thousands of workers, and persuading millions of individuals to do things differently. However much money you can throw at it – and under our plans we’re throwing a lot – this all takes time. 

And since we can never eliminate emissions completely, we also need to develop means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it safely. The best and cheapest means is growing trees, which is why we’re proposing planting at least an additional 40,000 hectares (or 60 million trees) a year, adding extra woodland of about two-thirds the size of the New Forest every year. But young trees, although they grow fast, don’t absorb much carbon because they’re small, so the amount they remove from the atmosphere in the first ten or even twenty years is important, but not enough. And forests are vulnerable to disease and wildfires, which are themselves getting worse because of climate change. In the long run we will have to rely on new technological solutions to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – and while there are several ideas being discussed, most of them aren’t even at pilot stage. 

Underpinning all this we will have to reform the country’s regulation and frameworks for finance and investment, skills, innovation and industrial support, and reshape the institutions of British government, central and local. I hope you can begin to see why this will take time. There is no possible way to do all this in five or ten or probably even twenty years. This is what underpins our target of net zero by 2045 – but why there is so much more to our proposals than just the date by which the last few megatonnes are phased out. 

Labour doesn’t have a comprehensive net zero emissions target at all. Their manifesto aims to ‘put the UK on track for a net-zero-carbon energy system within the 2030s’ – but by ‘energy’ they only mean power and heat in buildings (including industrial use but not industrial processes). They therefore ignore about half UK emissions. They have no targets for any other sector, including transport, industry, and agriculture and land use. And on top of that their obsession with nationalisation and centralised control would waste billions and use up valuable time.

There is much to admire in the Green Party’s proposals, but they don’t match their 2030 net zero target. We argue for an end to sales of new fossil fuel vehicles by 2030 (and then for them to be taken off the road by 2045 – 15 years is a typical lifespan for a car). The Green manifesto has exactly the same 2030 target, which means there will be still be millions of petrol and diesel cars on the road in ten years’ time. Their policies for aviation are almost exactly the same as ours – which should curb demand, but won’t eliminate emissions by 2030. And there are gaps in their policies on heating and agriculture. They propose a slightly faster rate of tree planting than we do, but for the reasons I explain above, that won’t be enough to offset remaining emissions in ten years’ time. 

Of course we haven’t got it perfect. There are some good ideas in the Green and even in the Labour manifestos that we should consider. But neither of them are being honest with the country about the huge challenges that reaching net zero will bring and about the measures we need to take now to start on that path. That’s the debate that we should all be having. 

I and other members of the group that drafted Tackling the Climate Emergency have produced an analysis of Labour and Green Party climate policies compared to Liberal Democrat proposals, available here. 

* Duncan Brack is the Editor of the Journal of Liberal History and Vice Chair of the Federal Policy Committee.

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20 Comments

  • Sue Sutherland 28th Nov '19 - 12:59pm

    I’m sure many of us are hoping that tonight’s debate will show the value of Lib Dem policies on climate change. Millions of new voters have registered in the last few weeks and many of them will be young people motivated by what is happening to our planet.
    I think it’s also an opportunity to show that we tried to make the UK more environmentally friendly when we were in Coalition but the Tories on their own have destroyed those initiatives. It also seems quite clear that membership of the EU is important in the fight against climate change.
    This could be the opportunity for the breakthrough that our party needs and that everyone needs to prevent the tragedy and disasters that are in store for the whole world if we don’t put climate change at the centre of politics.

  • Laurence Cox 28th Nov '19 - 2:04pm

    A very good article and thanks for the Green Lib Dems link. Typically, we build for the home market and import just over 2 million cars a year (the figure for 2018 is 2.37 million) so even if all of them were electric (and charged using zero-carbon electricity) it would still take 15 years to replace all fossil-fueled cars. Clearly, we need to look at second-generation biofuels as an interim solution. Brazil has been successful with using alcohol from sugar cane as a petrol replacement; we perhaps need to look at perennial grasses and coppicing as sources of organic material for biofuels.

  • Sacha Griffiths 28th Nov '19 - 2:59pm

    Duncan Brack is right in that whatever date or carbon target is set is going to require a monumental change in public behaviour. The public especially older generations do not want to. Realistically, in the short-term prices of cars/planes should be based on say double carbon off-setting. But that is negative. Positively, new builds should have the new generation of solar panels. Retro-fitting existing housing with everybody’s walls, roofs and fencing could even be done now. For the lib Dems, they can say you vote for us you we lend the money interest free and you won’t have an energy bill. in fact you will be a micro-producer making money. Lib Dem Lubbly Jubbly. Medium to long-term, Green-tech solutions have to be invested in. Whether it is hydrogen fuel cell, electric cars, Magento Hydro Dynamics, Hydro-electric power, Carbon-capture and so on. The financial gains let alone our planet are enormous. Rather than wasting money on Brexit or re-nationalisation, we should build, invest and then licence or asset -lease the Green-tech

  • Duncan Brack 28th Nov '19 - 3:23pm

    Jenny, you’re absolutely right, sorry, I should have mentioned that too. In the manifesto we say we would increase spending on walking and cycling to hit 10% of the transport budget (from about 2% now).

  • How will net zero emissions work? It sounds like a fantasy to me. Even on a windy day like today, wind energy is just 14% of the mix and solar, as you would expect, is zero.

    That is before we discuss the fact that the grid cannot handle a high proportion of renewable energy and the fact that it is so expensive that fuel poverty deaths will mean that any political party that tries to go down this route will be out of office for several generations.

  • Tony Greaves 28th Nov '19 - 8:55pm

    The climate policy paper is very good. The party’s politics and campaigning around it has been abysmal. And the debate at conference which concentrated on some mythical end date was a classic of political-managerial incompetence.

  • Peter Andrews 28th Nov '19 - 11:06pm

    “Even on a windy day like today, wind energy is just 14% of the mix and solar, as you would expect, is zero”
    Has the Sun suddenly disappeared completely leaving us in darkness? Because if not then solar will not be contributing zero. Yes it will contibute less than it would on a sunny day but never zero during daylight hours.

  • There’s a reason why this debate is centred on dates in the distant future. It’s because people who don’t want to do anything much now, but who don’t want to be portrayed as denialist dinosaurs, like making promises about what briliant things the next generation will do.

    That’s one of the problems. A parallel problem is that the terms of debate encourage deception. It sounds better if you have an unachievable plan and a headline date of 2025 that will be missed, than if you have a plan that has been designed to be achievable but which produces a headline date of 2045.

    Lib Dems will lose this debate unless they can redefine what it’s about.

  • Peter Andrews 28th Nov ’19 – 11:06pm:
    Has the Sun suddenly disappeared completely leaving us in darkness?

    At 5.10pm when Peter made his post, it had indeed done exactly that.

    For a live feed of ‘GB Electricity National Grid Demand and Output per Production Type’:
    https://gridwatch.co.uk

  • Duncan Brack 29th Nov '19 - 12:13pm

    Thanks for all the comments. David – I entirely agree, but how do you think we can redefine the debate? Tony – on a similar note, how do you think the party’s politics and campaigning need to change?

    Everything that Peter says is wrong. There have been many studies showing how the UK can get to net zero; that from the Committee on Climate Change in May this year is probably the best. National Grid have stated that by 2025 they will be able to manage 100% renewables on the grid. Wind farms by themselves have supplied over a third of UK peak electricity demand on particular days and overall, renewables generated 33% of UK electricity during 2018. New wind farms are now cheaper to build and operate than any other form of electricity generation.

  • Peter Hirst 29th Nov '19 - 3:17pm

    I hope you won’t be as tough with me as with the previous Peter, Duncan. For all the worthy actions and promises made by all Parties they all fail to acknowledge that it is a global issue as shown in the original name. We must put as much or more funding into global projects that can deliver more carbon reduction per pound as well as showing we understand our legacy in this issue. We can get to net carbon neutrality and still fail miserably to save the planet for humanity. And we’re an internationalist party. This is an ideal time for some education and sense.

  • South Australia and Germany have led the way. They now have the most expensive electricity in the world and in Europe respectively.

  • Duncan Brack 29th Nov '19 - 5:18pm

    Too many Peters in this discussion! Peter Hirst, you are absolutely right, but I was focusing on the debate around the UK net zero target which is going on in the election. And what the UK does for its own emissions is not irrelevant to that – if we can demonstrate that a major economy can decarbonise rapidly and still be successful, that is a very helpful demonstration to others.

    Other Peter: wrong again. German household electricity prices are high because about half of the unit cost is tax; Germany has chosen to tax electricity highly to encourage consumers to conserve energy, and also to compensate for the fact that tax industrial energy use much more lightly. Pre-tax prices are in fact lower than in most EU member states.

  • @Peter – Yes wind/solar energy is more expensive than what we’ve been accustomed to. Here in the UK wind/solar is even more expensive than new nuclear; once you factor in the subsidies.

    The challenge is that because we are accustomed to the prices we pay currently, we don’t appreciate that they have in fact been too low for too long and that the good times are quickly coming to an end.

    Yes fuel poverty is going to be an even bigger issue in the future than it is now, but it is something we are going to have to face whether we like it or not, because the age of burning cheap fossil fuels is drawing to a close. What is clear we are going to have to think differently about energy , particularly where much of the market is engaged in micro-generation (ie. solar panels, geo-thermal, wind, biomass etc.). The troubling thing is that as far as I can determine the UK rollout of smart meters is more about meter reading and billing than actually improving energy usage.

  • @Roland – Yes, you are right. The costs are high because of the subsidies. We also have to pay for the electricity whether or not the turbines are turned off. Then we have to pay for the more costly infrastructure where each turbine has to be connected individually and for the upgrade of the grid to try to protect the hardware from being destroyed when demand is suddenly not matched by supply.

    Then there is the cost of having conventional generators running inefficiently on standby, ready to kick in to keep the lights on when the wind fails to blow. Then there is the high cost of maintenance of offshore turbines, the reduction in their lifetime due to corrosion, the cost of decomissioning after about twenty years and the cost of finding some way to recycle the turbine blades.

    You are right, we shall have to pay a great deal more for heating and lighting. Deaths from fuel poverty will soar. I am grateful that you understand the reality. Far too many people believe the optimistic fantasy that renewables will provide a green opportunity for low cost energy, endless jobs and energy security when the opposite is true.

    Some realism in this debate is badly needed.

  • Duncan Brack 30th Nov '19 - 1:24pm

    I’m in favour of realism too. It is reality that the most recent nuclear station to be built (still under construction and several years behind schedule), Hinkley Point C, will be paid £92.50 per megawatt-hour of electricity generated – on top of government subsidies in the form of loan guarantees and a limitation of liabilities.

    It is reality that the most recent auction for renewable energy generation saw offshore wind contracts awarded for around £40 per megawatt-hour, £8-9 cheaper than the electricity market price – which means that the generators will pay the government back the difference between the market price and the contract price. That includes all the costs of maintenance and decommissioning. It is true that earlier generations of renewables were and are subsidised, because the technology was immature and they were given higher prices – but that’s what helped underpin innovation, driving the price down, so that the newest generation of offshore wind is now the cheapest form of electricity generation you can build.

    It is also reality that the costs of the subsidies, for renewables and for free home insulation for low-income families, adds only about 8-9% a year to electricity bills. And finally, it is reality that the main cause of fuel poverty is not expensive energy in terms of the unit price but expensive energy in the form of the total bill, because people in fuel poverty tend to live in very poorly insulated homes. So the best way to deal with fuel poverty is not to lower the price of energy but to insulate homes properly.

    Fortunately, Liberal Democrat policy is fully in line with reality.

  • Now that w have high pressure over much of the UK, temperatures are dropping rapidly and people are increasing electricity demand by turning on lights and heating. Luckily, much of industry and commercial premises are now closed for the weekend and evening.

    Solar is currently 0% of the demand and wind is 2% which is only 2.2GW despite an installed base of 22GW. it is a good job we are not at our target of 100% renewables. It makes the discussion of whether the target should be 2025 or a bit later completely pointless.

  • Re: Setting a Net Zero Date
    I think people are under-estimating the value of setting goals, seemingly focusing on the question are they achievable with what we know today and thus giving people (false) comfort. Forgetting that a key part of goal setting is to encourage radical thinking, something I suggest is necessary if we are to move our entire society and economy off its fossil fuel addiction.

    Given the lack of progress since circa 1970 when the up coming perfect storm was first forecasted, I’m happy to promote Extinction Rebellions 2025 target, to get politicians (especially Conservative and Labour) to understand that tomorrow isn’t going to be like yesterday and inject a sense of urgency; this Parliament need to make a decisively start.

    The danger of the LibDem 2045 date is that whilst it is reasonable and achievable, it is too far out and people will think things can wait and before we know it another 20 years will have been lost…

    Also the focus on 2025, isn’t unreasonable, given all the immediate post-Brexit forecasts for the UK economy, as it provides a target around which to make all those investments the parties are talking about.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Dec '19 - 6:29pm

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