Craig Dalzell – 21st October 2021
The UK published its 2050 Net Zero strategy this week. On one hand, it’s probably the most far reaching environmental plan ever published by the UK Government and is filled with language that is made more remarkable by the fact that it is being driven by the Conservatives; and on the other hand, it won’t work and we wouldn’t want it even if it did.
There appears to remain a fundamental disconnect between the meaning of a “net zero economy” – that is, one that produces no greenhouse gasses or can render the gasses that it does produce harmless to the environment – and a “Green New Deal” which does that but also fundamentally overhauls the economy that created the climate emergency problem and addresses other fundamental problems resulting from that economy. The latter is a solution, the former is a sticking plaster, a coat of greenwash and an excuse to change as little as the Powers That Be think they can get away with.
The first case-in-point here are the projections for actual emissions reductions and the scam that is “carbon capture, utilisation and storage”. Robin McAlpine deals with CCS in his own column this week but I’ll say just a little here too. CCS is not proven to work at anywhere near the scale it would be needed to under this plan (global CCS in 2020 amounted to about 40 Megatonnes of CO2 and concerns remain around the potentially “unlimited” liability around damage caused by leakage of stored carbon) so if it fails it would leave the UK with no backup plan. We may well need to start planning for “post-climate emergency reconstruction” using CCS to reduce environmental CO2 back down to pre-industrial levels but it should not be part of the “net” solution to the immediate crisis. Doing so is merely an excuse for carbon emitters to keep polluting, call themselves “green” and put the blame on climate change on “fugitive emissions” from leaking CCS schemes which aren’t anything to do with them even though they’ll probably be owned by a subsidiary company. The UK plan hopes that up to 80 Megatonnes of CO2 can be “captured” per year by 2050 around 25% of current UK emissions but projected to cover 100% of the UK’s “residual emissions” by that time. Note that this means that under this plan, the UK merely reaches “net zero” and doesn’t become “carbon negative”. The UK will not be playing a role in “offsetting” the emissions of countries that can’t reach their own net zero by 2050 nor will it be helping to correct historic damage given that it was one of the first countries to industrialise and has contributed to 4.7% of global cumulative CO2 emissions to date (making it the fifth largest historic polluter). The only reference to aid to help other countries (particularly former British colonies exploited by our industrialisation) reach their climate goals or to protect them from the consequences of our pollution is a single line saying that future foreign aid will “do no harm” to the environment.
It is in housing that the UK’s “net zero” approach most greatly differs from an actual Green New Deal. This plan appears to be based on placing the minimum burden on the government itself to make changes. The Net Zero plan makes almost no fuss about retrofitting houses to properly insulate them despite our calculations showing that this is probably the single largest task ahead of us in terms of both cost and labour time. Yes, all the right words are said in terms of high level language about insulation (and energy efficiency standards based on the critically flawed EPC system) but there’s no real plan to make it happen. This is a plan that places the responsibility and the blame for fixing the UK’s crap building standards on the now-owners of those houses.
Worse, your home heating will be converted largely to air source heat pumps and headlines were generated this week about the £5,000 grant that will soon be available to partially subsidise the cost of them. It is unlikely to cover the full cost of the pump nor will it cover further modifications that may be needed to the heating system and which will probably push the total conversion cost to around £10,000 per house. And with no strategy to combine these two transformations we will see many thousands of people installing heat pumps before they’ve insulated their homes. This means either they’ll install a pump that is too small for their house – meaning they’ll be zero-carbon, but frozen in winter – or they’ll install one that is too large, wasting a great deal of money and causing problems when they do insulate and their pump has to keep turning on and off all the time instead of running constantly. Finally, despite the efficiencies of heat pumps, the fact that electricity is a lot more expensive than gas and oil means that it’s likely you’ll end up paying the same or more for your heating as you would if you don’t convert. Again, net zero – but not a solution to fuel poverty.
This plan also loses all of the economies of scale that would come from, say, a bank of heat pumps powering a district heating system. The smallest heat pumps on the market at the moment retail for about £4,000 but one double the size costs a fair bit less than double the price. Even with the additional district heating infrastructure, there comes a point where collective action is cheaper than individual action.
So why does the UK Net Zero plan only mention district heating as a minor part of the plan? Lack of strategic direction is one answer as could be intense lobbying from energy suppliers (there are plenty of electricity companies who’d love it if you traded your gas boiler for an electric system) but I think a large part of the problem is the lack of impetus to do “boring public works”. Boris Johnson likes his big flashy bridges and airports, but laying thousands of kilometres of plumbing doesn’t quite make his list of “good headlines”.
We see the exact same lack of impetus in the Circular Economy. The same flashy language but beneath that, little to be said about the “how”. A Circular Economy is about more than repairing things a bit more, recycling better and burning the rest as “energy recovery with carbon capture”. It fundamentally changes our relationship with goods and consumerism. The word “reduce” barely appears in this document (so they’re obviously thinking “recycled packages” rather than “no packaging at all”) and the concept of a Tool or Resource Library where you can borrow things instead of buying and recycling them does not appear at all. Under this plan, people with money will still be buying things they don’t need and people without money will be left without the things they do need. Again, “Net Zero” isn’t a “Green New Deal”.
There’s far more that I can’t cover in this column but may come back to. A land-use reform plan without land ownership reform. A reference to making air travel carbon neutral but no idea how to do it. A trade policy based around exporting more rather than importing less or reducing shipping emissions. An admission that around 80% of the work in the plan will be done by devolved or local governments but little in the way of resourcing or powers to actually do it.
With the Climate Emergency already past the point where we can avoid damage – merely mitigate the worst of it – Scotland, the UK and the world deserve a lot better than mere “net zero”. Given its historic responsibilities, the UK should be at the forefront of the race to become as carbon negative as possible and it should be using the transition to fix other problems of fuel poverty, inequality or pollution beyond CO2. Hopefully, those coming to COP26 next month will come to the same conclusion and demand more. At least one country within the UK already has a proper Green New Deal blueprint sitting ready to be picked up and used. If the UK won’t do it and Scotland won’t do it either, maybe one of the countries visiting next month will be interested in adapting it and becoming the first truly Green New Deal nation instead.