The UK has now put into law the goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050*. This is to reduce our contribution to climate change and to meet the requirements of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement (an outcome of COP21) to keep global warming below 2 °C and hopefully less than 1.5 °C.
But what does net zero mean?
Net zero means that the amount of carbon dioxide (greenhouse gases) we (the UK) release are balanced by removing the same amount from the atmosphere.
This isn’t as simple as it might sound, achieving net zero by 2050 will require a large effort from government, businesses and citizens. These efforts and commitments will be discussed and agreed at COP26 which took place in Glasgow during November 2021. This will include some sacrifices but should also create many new opportunities and help to create a world that is better for everyone.
In the video below, Jennifer from Glasgow Science Centre answers the question, ‘What is Net Zero?’.
How to get to net zero
There are a lot of things that need to happen to reach net zero and the sooner we start to do them the easier it will be to reach our goal.
Move away from fossil fuels
It will be impossible to reach net zero while still using coal, oil and gas the way we do today. This means we have to start reducing the amount of fossil fuels we burn in power stations as well as the amount we extract from the earth. The challenge with this is that we need reliable alternative energy sources in place first. If we just start shutting power stations down, we would end up with an energy/electricity shortage.
A large investment in and expansion of renewable energy generation, especially solar and wind. These are established technologies which are getting more efficient and cheaper all the time so the main investment will be in expanding their deployment into all available locations.
Hydro is an important renewable as well but is almost at capacity in the UK so any new contributions from it will be small.
Catch the carbon
Carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) will play an important role in reducing emissions from both heavy industry and the power sector in the short term while we are still making the transition to renewable energy. In the long run it will still have a role in reducing emissions from industries that are hard to decarbonise completely such as concrete production.
Innovate innovate innovate
This is one of the most important steps in reaching net zero. Innovation across every part of society will lead to greener ways of doing things as well as creating new technologies and new jobs that don’t exist today.
Linked to innovation, improving the energy efficiency of everything we can think of will mean lower emissions across the board. From homes and buildings, appliances and transport, industry and computing, even space travel.
Another important step on the way to net zero is to make everything we possibly can run on electricity. Transport has already started this process with electric cars becoming more common and many governments around the world banning the sale of diesel and electric cars by the mid 2030s. The next step is to make all transport electric, cars, busses, lorries, trains, smaller planes and who knows what else.
As well as transport, heating of all homes and buildings needs to switch to electricity with heat pumps being used almost everywhere. And as much heavy industry as possible needs to switch as well, with things like steelworks using electric furnaces instead of gas fired ones.
Link it, store it
To make the switch be fully electric we will need to make our energy grid more flexible. This means expanding the grid and linking in with other countries to create a Super grid which can take electricity from wherever it’s being produced to where it’s needed. Innovations in energy storage will be important for this, from batteries to hydro, compressed gas and hydrogen. This will mean we are able to meet the demand for electricity even when production is low.
This is just a summary of what we need to do to reach net zero by 2050. A lot of the technologies needed to achieve this already exist and are in use on a small scale or are at the demonstration stage. The hardest part will be making these changes quickly enough to reach the target. This will require a lot of money being spent by both government, and business, however not spending lots now will mean spending even more money later to try and deal with the impacts of global warming.
Another major challenge in reaching net zero will be lifestyle changes, things like making fewer flights, walking and cycling more, thinking about the food we use (and reducing the food we waste) as well as many other small changes most people haven’t thought about yet.
Net zero by 2050 is an ambitious target, it needs to be to keep climate change to less than 1.5 °C, but it is also an achievable target. It will require hard work, new ideas, and new ways of doing things and if we can all work together, we can get there.