Achieving Net Zero is ambitious and by no means easy – but it is deliverable. To be successful at staying under 1.5 degrees of warming, we will need to make some firm choices and start delivering over the next few years. Much of the groundwork is in place and, whilst alternative pathways to achieving the goal are possible, keeping too many options open for too long will deter investment and will slow progress. There is no silver bullet on the horizon, delivering net zero will require concerted effort over the next three decades to put in place infrastructure and technologies we are familiar with today .
Building new nuclear, deploying CCS and expanding renewables – these are today’s ‘no regrets’ technology choices which can form the backbone of the deep emissions cuts we need. Net zero also will also require negative emissions, capturing CO2 by growing energy crops, and then capturing and sequestering the CO2 via gasification – producing power or ‘green’ hydrogen or both. Other direct air capture technologies may be possible later in the century, but for now planting crops and good soil management are low risk and effective.
Net Zero will also mean redoubling efforts on the decarbonisation of the hard to get at sectors: energy intensive industrial processes; heavy goods vehicles; marine vessels; air transport and so on. The efficiency improvements we can make in the short term to traditional technologies are important, but the advances that can be seen in battery technology, in smart grid management, in electric vehicles, additive manufacturing amongst others will be needed to be deployed at scale over the mid term – that will include changes to the UK’s physical infrastructure, electricity distribution, vehicle charging, gases, liquid fuels, and possibly changes to existing market structures to take advantage of increasing digitalisation. The potential impact on the UK’s energy system of the cost effective production and deployment of ‘green’ hydrogen could be huge, impacting heat, transport and providing much needed storage flexibility as we deploy more and more renewable technologies.
Decarbonising domestic heat remains a significant challenge, transitioning our leaky housing stock through retrofit efficiency measures and ensuring new building regulations drive better building performance are both essential. Better management of resources through smart controls and networks offer huge advances enabled by digitalisation – but need to work hand in hand with the consumer. These approaches, together with the deployment of the right solutions for the local area taking into account the community wishes, the nature of the heat load, the existing infrastructure, the building types and so on will enable the shift away from fossil fuel reliance for domestic space and water heating. There is unlikely to be a one size fits all technology for domestic heat, but electrification of heat, heat pumps, hydrogen, district heating, community CHP and others are all likely to play a part.
There are many alternative pathways to decarbonisation, but some are more costly and some are more risky than others. Large scale demonstration is needed in a number of areas to reduce risk and to drive out cost, and a systems approach to selecting and investing is essential. The step from the lab to the market remains very difficult and limited capital availability does not always result in the best solutions surviving to market adoption.
The good news is that the technologies we need to achieve the net zero goal are available today and we have the tools to guide the decisions to deploy them in the most cost effective way. The UK has always been good at early stage innovation, but we will need to get much better at scaling up and then actually deploying those innovations. There are roles for both the public and private sector as well as for the consumer in achieving the clear societal goal of net zero. The market however is unlikely to deliver on its own, it will require partnership, leadership, choices and action. We have to get quicker at bringing the right innovation to market at the right time and the right cost if we are to succeed.