How can the UK achieve net zero by 2050?

11 Apr 2022

Net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is an excellent target, but incredibly difficult to achieve. It will require an integrated symbiotic strategy across all GHG emitters, write Oxford researchers Jennifer Castle and David Hendry.

We will set out the strategy in a presentation at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society. For the UK to reach net zero by 2050, we propose five interacting sensitive intervention points (SIPs), when a small shift would trigger a much larger positive and persistent change:

(1) installing sufficient non-GHG electricity generation;

(2) connecting electric vehicles to an intelligent grid for large-scale short-run storage;

(3) utilising intermittent ‘surplus’ energy for nearly free hydrogen production;

(4) liquified hydrogen for medium-term storage and a high-heat source for industry;

(5) green electricity-based uses in agriculture, construction, and waste management.

A joined-up approach to decarbonizing is needed, as virtuous circles can be missed with isolated thinking. Our five SIPs symbiotically interact to facilitate the transition to net zero GHG emissions. We now describe each in more detail.

(1) Clean electricity generation from wind and solar renewables is cost-effective with known technologies and should be expanded to provide sufficient power for all electric vehicles (EVs) before replacing natural gas. As it faces storage problems for dark, still periods, both large and small modular nuclear reactors could maintain background supply. Although nuclear fusion remains an uncertain possibility, research is making substantial progress, as are tide and wave electricity generation.

(2) Replacing internal combustion vehicles by electric vehicles would allow them to be used as short-term storage units plugged into an intelligent grid (V2G) to balance electricity flow. Blade, solid-state, and graphene-based batteries offer significant improvements in efficiency while reducing use of rare minerals from toxic mining. Supercapacitors from carbon nanotubes could help replace diesel-electric trains, and being light, could make electric aircraft viable.

(3) While ensuring short-term continuity of electricity supply via V2G, longer-term storage is required (e.g., batteries, hydro, liquid hydrogen, flywheels) before renewables can dominate. This could be facilitated by cheap electrolysis or methane pyrolysis of hydrogen helping replace natural gas.

(4) Liquid hydrogen could also be a high heat source for industry, with hydrogen gas partly replacing methane use by households. New buildings could use glulam, carbon-eating cement from magnesium oxide, with heat pumps, solar photovoltaics, and evacuated-tube solar collectors. Retrofitting existing buildings with improved insulation and double glazing would reduce emissions from heating and cooling.

(5) Methane, nitrous oxide, CO2, and ammonia emissions are all by-products of modern food production. Ruminant methane emissions can be reduced by dietary changes, and nitrous oxide can be reduced by replacing fertiliser by biochar and basalt dust which absorbs CO2. Vertical and underground farms, cheaply lit by LED, would reduce transportation and cropland use, helping to halt deforestation and improve efficiency. Tree planting, peat and wetland restoration all help absorb CO2. Seaweed can be grown for animal food additives and absorbs water pollution, while offshore wind farms act as marine reserves while mixing ocean levels, and human dietary changes to eating less mammal meat are feasible.

The UK's 2008 Climate Change Act reduced its territorial GHG emissions by 34% by 2019 at little aggregate cost, as real GDP per capita rose by 25% despite the ‘Great Recession’.  Attention must be paid to local costs of lost jobs as new technologies are implemented: mitigating the inequality impacts while avoiding a climate emergency matters for a ‘just transition’, as ’stranded assets’ lead to ‘stranded jobs’. Steady and coordinated implementation can maintain employment and real per-capita growth in new industries.

Ever-increasing extreme weather makes it urgent to tackle climate change, but fortunately a route towards a sustainable climate is available at little additional cost for the UK and potentially many other countries.

Contact:

Jennifer Castle (Magdalen College and Climate Econometrics, University of Oxford) - jennifer.castle@magd.ox.ac.uk

David Hendry (Nuffield College and Climate Econometrics, University of Oxford) - david.hendry@nuffield.ox.ac.uk

Notes to Editors:

The press release is highlighting research papers presented at the RES Annual Conference 2022 (#RES20220) for further information, please contact j.randalledwards@res.org.uk on 07970 201456 if you want the link to the full paper.

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