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Home / News and Insights / Blogs / Planning Act 2008 / 895: Net zero half time scores

Today’s entry looks at progress towards net zero in the UK, at the half way point between 1990 and 2050.

On 25 March the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published its provisional figures for greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 across each sector, which can be found here. 2020 is of course half way between 1990, the baseline year for net zero, and 2050, the year by which net zero is to be achieved. It is therefore instructive to see how each sector is doing.

Energy supply

Energy supply has done the best so far, with a huge reduction from 242 million tonnes of CO2 in 1990 to 79 in 2020, just less than a third of the 1990 figure. The figure was 89.6 Mt in 2019, so that is a significant decrease in the last year that is not particularly attributable to the pandemic. The country will be down to one coal-fired power station by the end of next year, Uniper’s Ratcliffe-on-Soar plant which is currently planned to keep going until October 2024, so the figure will keep going down.

I have calculated that if energy supply kept decreasing at the same rate (based on the confirmed 2019 figure rather than the preliminary 2020 one) it would reach net zero in 2035, well on target. Of course that is a very superficial analysis as the last bits will be the hardest to decarbonise, but is a useful rule of thumb.

Transport

Transport is a very different picture. By 2019 it had only made a 3.6% reduction from 1990 figures, which is a very poor performance. That shot up to 21.4% last year, however, but due in large part to the pandemic and the lack of travelling rather than any improvements in emissions. It is now the largest emitting sector, accounting for 97.2 Mt or nearly 30% of the UK’s emissions.

Based on the confirmed 1990 to 2019 figures, if it kept decarbonising at that rate, transport would not reach net zero until the year 2618! This sector therefore clearly needs urgent action to decarbonise and I await the imminent Transport Decarbonisation Plan with interest.

Residential and public sector

Conversely, residential (ie houses) and public sector (eg schools and hospitals) emissions actually went up between 2019 and 2020 (albeit only slightly), presumably due to more people heating and cooking at home, now standing at 75.4 Mt. It won’t be long before energy supply becomes lower than residential and public sector emissions.

Again if the 1990 to 2019 rate continued, net zero would be reached in 2156, more than a hundred years late. This is again a big challenge that needs to be tackled. Steps are being taken for new houses, but it is the conversion of the existing housing stock to heat pumps and alternative cooking fuels that is the main challenge.

Business

The final sector covered by the 2020 preliminary result is the business sector (which encompasses a wide range including factories, steel plants, shops, restaurants etc). This went down by 8.7% last year, but again that was mainly due to the pandemic rather than decarbonisation.

It’s not so bad when it comes to reaching net zero on the current trajectory – 2082, still 32 years late though. The decarbonisation of industrial clusters will help a lot with this.

Other sectors

The preliminary data only covers CO2 emissions and not other gases that are the converted to CO2 equivalents in the figures and leaves out three sectors – agriculture, industrial processes and the snappily titled ‘land use, land use change and forestry’.

On the 1990 to 2019 trajectory agriculture would get there in 2218 – lots to do there, and it is not decarbonisation but demethanisation that is required (you heard that word here first).

Industrial processes covers the chemical industry including things like ‘sinter production’ and ‘magnesium cover gas’, which will require quite technical solutions, but is on track to be the first sector to have removed greenhouse gas emissions, in 2026 by current trajectories.

Finally, LULUCF (perhaps FLULUC would have been more pronounceable?) is about planting trees, creating grassland, cropland and the like. It is on target to decarbonise (equivalent) by 2034, but given that it includes carbon sink creation like forestry should be aiming much lower – significant negative carbon – by 2050, to offset residual emissions from the rest of the sectors.

In summary then, there are thus dramatic variations in decarbonisation across different sectors. Electricity production gets the most attention, and indeed the decarbonisation of other sectors relies on converting them to using electricity instead of fossil fuels, so it deserves the attention. Consequently, it has made the most significant strides towards decarbonisation in recent years, with transport, residential and agriculture lagging seriously behind.

What is the overall number? The 1990 CO2 equivalent emissions figure was 809Mt and in 2019 it was 455Mt. This would mean hitting net zero nationally in 2057, but to suggest we just need a few tweaks to get there by 2050 would be a gross and complacent simplification.

And finally

I attended part of the Sizewell C preliminary meeting this week – Part 1 extended over two full days, and Part 2 will be on 14 April. It all went pretty smoothly with one inspector taking over from another at one point when his IT failed.

Don’t get me wrong, the live transcript and subsequent written transcripts that are quickly produced are extremely useful. Automatic transcription still has a way to go, however, and some of the computer mishearings were hilarious. The live transcript called Friends of the Earth ‘Fantasy Park’ at one point (corrected in the written transcript), and the eminent Hereward Phillpot QC acting for EdF is still referred to as ‘Mr fell apart’ in one transcript.

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