Report reveals policy gaps in UK Government’s net zero pledge

  • Aug 24, 2019
  • The Chemical Engineer

THE Science and Technology Committee (STC) has highlighted policy gaps in the Government’s plans to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and makes recommendations on the technologies and levels of support needed to reach that goal.

The UK Government recently declared a climate emergency and announced a target of net zero emissions by 2050, but its ambitious words are not being matched by policies needed to achieve that goal, according to the Science and Technology Committee (Commons), a cross-party group of MPs.

Norman Lamb MP, Chair of the STC, said: “Parliament has declared a climate emergency. The worrying effects of climate change, such as heatwaves, wildfires and flooding are already occurring at an alarming rate and will have a huge impact on future generations. Throughout our inquiry, it was worrying to hear that although the Government may be ambitious when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, it is not putting the policies in place which are needed to achieve those targets. We need to see the Government put its words into actions.”

The STC report, Clean Growth: Technologies for meeting the UK’s emission reduction targets, highlights the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) warning that the UK is currently set to miss its legally-binding carbon budget targets from 2023 to 2032. The report lists ten areas where there are significant policy gaps, and areas where support has been delayed or funding cut. This includes closing the feed-in tariff for low-carbon power generation, cancelling a zero-carbon homes policy in 2015, increasing business rates on solar panels, excluding onshore wind and large-scale solar power from financial support, and the delay of the Government’s white paper on the future of the energy market which was due to be published in early 2019.

It recommends action in ten key areas across different sectors including transport, heating, energy efficiency, and greenhouse gas removal. This includes a strategy for decarbonising heat, support for onshore wind and solar power, sustaining nuclear power without growing the industry, and clear action on CCUS.

The Government’s Clean Growth Strategy was published in October 2017, which includes up to £2.5bn (US$3.1) of investment in low carbon technologies. However, the report notes that the CCC has cautioned against focussing on early-stage innovation and that instead there needs to be support to drive deployment. The UK Energy Research Centre said that new technologies could take 3–4 decades to go from early-stage research to commercialisation, which is incompatible with meeting the carbon budgets in 5–15 years. Comments received by the STC said that scaling up existing technologies will be more important. Johnson Matthey said that scale is critical and that it would be better to spend £100m on a larger scale project than the same amount on a larger number of projects on small scale.

Power generation was responsible for around 15% of the UK’s emissions in 2018, despite the rapid move away from coal and increase in renewable energy. The CCC says that further reductions will be the lowest-cost path towards decarbonisation.

Seven of the UK’s eight nuclear power stations, which have a generation capacity of 7.7 GW, are scheduled to be closed by 2030. Only one new plant, Hinkley Point C, is under construction and this will provide 3.2 GW by 2025. The report urges the Government to make a decision on implementing a regulated asset base framework, where the cost of building new nuclear power plants would be covered through consumers’ energy bills. This would likely attract investors as it would allow them to get a return on their investment during construction, rather than waiting years before the plant starts generating power. The STC calls on the Government to support new nuclear power generation to sustain, but not grow, the UK’s nuclear power industry.

It also urges the Government to deliver on recommendations made by the Expert Finance Working Group on Small Modular Reactors in a 2018 report. Rolls-Royce also told the STC that it is prepared to invest in an SMR development programme if it is matched by Government support. The report also notes that the Government must still ensure that nuclear fusion research continues in the UK. While nuclear fusion is unlikely to make a contribution to the net zero by the 2050 target due to the challenges in developing the technology, it is emission-free and produces no long-lived radioactive waste.

Domestic, commercial, and industrial heating account for a third of the UK’s overall emissions and this hasn’t changed since 2009. The report highlights that there is no clear strategy for decarbonising heat and that the Government needs to enact large-scale trials of different heating technologies, including hydrogen. The report notes that the CCC had said in its Hydrogen in a Low Carbon Economy report last year “continuation of an incremental approach that relies on isolated, piecemeal demonstration projects may lead to hydrogen continuing to remain forever an option ‘for the future’”. The STC also says that the existing hydrogen demonstration projects should be coordinated and that the Government must urgently complete the safety demonstration work for hydrogen.

The CCC says that even with full deployment of emissions reductions option, the UK will still have to remove 130m t/y of CO2 by 2050 to reach net zero targets. This will require a significant increase in the support for greenhouse gas removing technologies. The STC reiterates the conclusions of a recent cross-party report from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee, which said that the Government needs to provide greater clarity on its CCS action plan. This includes defining what it considers to be “deployment at scale” and “sufficient cost reduction”.

The report has generally been welcomed, with many agreeing on the urgent need for change. However some shortcomings have been identified.

Miles Seaman, member of the Energy Centre Board at IChemE said: “From the point of view of developing the technology required to achieve these goals it is clear that there is currently no hope of avoiding the predicted climate catastrophe unless we address much more seriously how this can be done. From the perspective of chemical engineers we believe the means are within our grasp but the urgency with which we are currently tackling these issues is not anywhere near sufficient. What is needed is an equitable way of pursuing these objectives for our society as a whole.”

Joanna Cox, Head of Policy at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, said: “Delivering net zero will require technology providers, government and society to work together to eliminate emissions. While great strides have been made on the part of science and technology to make zero carbon a reality, engineers at the heart of delivering solutions are not currently being supported by consistent government and policy action. The lack of consistent policy, as highlighted in the areas of shortfall, holds back private investment in the low-carbon technologies. If some of the greatest challenges, like the decarbonisation of heat, are to be achieved, urgent and decisive action has to be taken – we can’t afford to waste any more time. We welcome the…[STC’s]… report and recommendations for change.”

Phil Purnell, Professor of Materials and Structures at the University of Leeds, said: “While the commitment to encouraging deeper and faster cuts in carbon emissions is welcomed, the report makes no mention of investment in better design for reuse, or recycling technologies. Reuse and recycling reduce our demand for raw materials that end up in waste, which accounts for over 200m t of carbon emissions per year. Investing significant sums in both better design of products that can be repaired, reused and recycled, and in collection and infrastructure systems that can recycle materials better, would save more carbon per pound invested than many of the technologies listed here.”

Duncan McLaren, Professor in Practice and Research Fellow at the Lancaster University Environment Centre, said: “The Committee’s recommendations for greater support for, and wide consultation on, negative emissions techniques are valuable but inadequate. We recommend a clear separation in the policy regimes for negative emissions and emissions reduction, to ensure that the two are genuinely additive. Promises of future removals cannot be allowed to substitute for urgent action to accelerate emissions reduction.”

Richard Lowes, Energy Policy Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and UK Energy Research Centre, said: “So-called ‘low carbon gases’ may appeal to policy makers, but, hydrogen remains a deeply uncertain pipe dream promoted by incumbent interests; the idea of blending hydrogen into natural gas provides minimal carbon reductions and doesn’t support longer-term changes.”

Ian Fells, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “80% of UK energy requirement is for heat, not electricity. Our rundown nuclear industry must be reinvigorated and extended with new high temperature reactors to provide carbon-free heat for industry and carbon-free hydrogen for transport.”

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