Cutting carbon: how the UK Government can reach net zero

By Steve Scrimshaw
Steve Scrimshaw, VP, Siemens Energy, outlines the steps the UK Government should take to reach net zero emission targets

The UK Government’s emissions reduction target has recently become even more ambitious.

Originally, the target was an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, under the Climate Change Act. Now, the Government has chosen to implement the advice of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) and has committed to a 78% reduction by 2035, effectively committing to meeting its original target 15 years earlier.

This is an ambitious target, but it’s also commensurate with the scale of the crisis the planet is facing if emissions aren’t brought under control. It’s not enough to simply set bold targets, however, because there also needs to be a smart and strategic approach to making an emissions reduction of this scale a reality. Ahead of the UK’s presidency of COP26 this year, the world will be watching as the Government seeks to turn commitments into action. 

With this in mind, these are the steps I believe the UK Government needs to take in order to reach its ambitious net zero target and deliver a sustainable future for the planet. 

Electricity market reform

The energy system is being transformed by new technologies, from renewables to new ways of using electricity, such as e-mobility or electric heat pumps for heating.

In order for this system to deliver the maximum possible environmental benefit the current system must be readdressed to reflect these new technologies which will come forward.

Indeed, the Committee on Climate Change outlines in ‘The Sixth Carbon Budget: The UK’s path to Net Zero’, that “a failure to develop electricity market arrangements, to ensure security of supply as the share of intermittent renewables increases could cause wider economic damage if confidence in the reliability of UK energy supplies is affected”.

Within a flexible market, it will be possible for energy networks to monitor energy flows and send market signals that would allow for the most efficient use of green energy based on supply and demand. Through smart meters and appliances, renewable energy and energy-efficient resources can be allocated most efficiently, with green energy supplied when this is most affordable.

Investing in wind power

The Government has committed to a target of 40GW of offshore wind power by 2030. It should be noted that it took 20 years to get to our current 10GW, so increasing this by 30GW in the next nine years is highly ambitious. 

Making this a reality is going to require significant investment. Even if you take away the cost of the wind farms and the wires to the beach, upgrading the grid onshore will cost around £11 billion in the run up to 2030.

To meet the 40GW target, ensuring a consistent pipeline of offshore projects will be crucial, as this will provide certainty for the supply chain to invest in people to be able to deliver this.

While the Ten Point Plan and Energy White Paper only committed to developing 1GW of floating offshore, this innovation will mean we are able to use deeper waters and coupled with developments which will see hydrogen produced at sea from offshore wind farms, means the wind sector will have a further important role in meeting net zero.

A hydrogen strategy

The UK will need to create a new market for zero-carbon hydrogen power to realise its target of net zero emissions by 2050. The scale of the necessary increase in hydrogen use is significant, with David Joffe, the CCC’s head of carbon budgets, arguing that the UK will need 10 times the current levels of hydrogen to reach net zero.

Currently, the UK only produces around 25TWh of hydrogen every year – equivalent to the power that will be generated by just one nuclear power plant, Hinkley Point C, when it comes online in 2026. We’re less than a billion seconds away from 2050, so the process of making up this shortfall needs to begin now, requiring the UK to build several hundred gigawatts of hydrogen production capacity over the next 30 years.

The good news is, the UK Government has a target of 5GW of hydrogen production by 2030 and the Scottish Government too has said it is aiming for 5GW of hydrogen production. We anticipate more detail from the UK Government in its Hydrogen Strategy, due to be published in the summer.

Local area energy planning

No single approach to decarbonising the UK’s energy system can be applied nationwide. Every part of the UK has its own mix of technologies and networks in place, requiring a tailored approach.

The most effective way to work with this reality is to empower local areas to take the lead in planning their own energy systems, enabling them to identify how to meet carbon emissions reductions targets at the least cost. While central coordination will be necessary to ensure a joined-up approach, there would be greater scope for local Government to partner with energy networks and other key local stakeholders to drive transformative change.

With this local plan in place, there will also be the opportunity to create new green jobs and boost investment in local areas, while using local insight to determine the most effective and cost-efficient route to decarbonisation.

Once local authorities have developed their decarbonisation energy plans, particular cities and towns that have demonstrated the potential for rapid decarbonisation could be prioritized as pathfinders, receiving additional funding to make their vision for fast energy change a reality.

Long-term decarbonisation mandate on building owners

Achieving net zero by 2050 will rely on nearly all heat in buildings being decarbonised. As a result, there needs to be a long-term mandate from the Government on building owners, ensuring they decarbonise over time.

Clearly making this happen will rely on there being enough heating engineers with the skills to install zero carbon solutions. As such, it’s vital that the Government invests in skills programmes to boost the number of engineers who can play their part in transitioning the country to net zero.

This should be paired with updated regulations around new build developments, ensuring all new build properties are fitted with energy efficient heat pumps and the correct insulation.

Incentivising the transition

Finally, as with any behavioural change that the Government wishes to create, the correct incentives need to be in place. On one level, this simply means that innovators in the decarbonisation space are financially incentivised to deliver solutions.

It also means sending the correct signals to consumers to shape their purchasing decisions, shifting these towards zero carbon.

In some instances this is already happening – the Government’s decision to ban new petrol cars from being sold from 2030 is already shifting social norms, prompting more people to consider electric vehicles, with global sales forecast to rise by 70% in 2021.

In other areas, more needs to be done as it is not only transport which will undergo fundamental change, but the way people heat their homes and cook food too. This will require a huge public information campaign on how these changes will be made in the existing housing stock.

It’s clear that the Government’s 2050 net zero emissions target is ambitious, but it’s also necessary and achievable. Now it must be backed by a similarly ambitious, smart and decisive strategy to make it a reality.

Steve Scrimshaw is Vice President, Siemens Energy


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