Last month UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak watered down the Government’s climate commitments by delaying plans to phase out the sale of petrol and diesel cars and fossil fuel boilers to 2035 – pushing back the current target by 5 years.
At the same time, Rishi Sunak insisted that his Government is “absolutely not slowing down” efforts to combat the climate crisis and maintaining that the UK is “…so far ahead of every other country in the world. We’ve had the fastest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the G7, down almost 50% from 1990, France 22%, the US: no change at all….”
This is misleading.
On BBC Radio 4’s More or Less, Dr Hannah Ritchie, Deputy Editor and Science Outreach Lead at Our World In Data pointed out that while the UK did achieve the greatest reductions in CO2 emissions in the G7, the UK does not have the lowest carbon emissions – it simply started from a higher baseline and had more CO2 to cut.
In fact, France has lower emissions per person. This is because in 1990, France already had lower emissions and has contributed less to climate change than the UK.
This point is key.
In discussions about reducing emissions, the year in which we hit net zero remains such a dominating focus and Rishi Sunak has stressed that he is “absolutely unequivocal” about sticking to the commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
However, as is so often the case, ‘the time value of carbon’ has been overlooked.
According to the IPCC, CO2 emissions remain in the atmosphere for 200 years and this means that the effect of these gases is cumulative: with every additional molecule of CO2 emitted the thicker the blanket gets and the greater the rise in temperature.
Greenhouse gases emitted today have longer in the atmosphere to cause harm than gases emitted in the future.
Waiting until 2035 to start reducing carbon emissions is not an option if we want to avert the worst impacts of global warming. This is supported by research published in Nature in 2021, which shows that early action is best. Achieving large emissions reductions by 2030, without ever reaching net zero, delivers a significantly better result than reaching net zero through a big improvement between 2040 and 2050.
Rishi Sunak claims that he wants to take a “more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach” to CO2 reduction – and we believe that industrial decarbonization is a great place to focus that pragmatism, without the motorist being affected in any way. After all, industrial processes combined account for around 20% of all emissions.
In our whitepaper, Three technologies to reduce climate change, published earlier this year, we assessed technologies available today which could help achieve decarbonization in the cement industry in order to limit the expected global rise in temperatures. It provides recommendations for actions that governments can take to help producers accelerate their decarbonization journeys in a financially sustainable manner.
One of these solutions is Carbon Re’s Delta Zero AI platform, which can enable cement producers to reduce over 50 kilotonnes of annual CO2 emissions per plant. Each software installation can save as much CO2 as taking 11,000 cars off the road. So, with the move away from taking actual cars off the road, we would like to see the Government double down on investing in and deploying low carbon technologies to CO2 emission reductions elsewhere.
The Government’s strategy to date has focused on investing in carbon capture,storage and utilization (CCUS) as the key solution. It is definitely crucial for us to be able to reach net zero, but it isn’t here yet and can’t be deployed. Indeed, CCUS probably won’t be here until well into the 2030s.
For the reasons I’ve given above, that’s just too late.
Whether or not this is about winning votes from motorists in the short term, the UK has a history built on burning fossil fuels and has a crucial role to play in driving emissions reductions and leading the development and deployment of low carbon technologies.
With the right investments, the UK may possibly still deploy an effective “new approach to climate change”. But waiting until 2035 to implement aggressive policies may result in missed opportunities to create incentives for clean energy, sustainable transportation, and energy-efficient technologies.