We can’t wait for breakthrough technologies to deliver net-zero emissions by 2050. Instead, we can
plan to respond to climate change using today’s technologies with incremental change. This will
reveal many opportunities for growth but requires a public discussion about future lifestyles.
We have to cut our greenhouse gas emissions to zero by
2050: that’s what climate scientists tell us, it’s what social
protesters are asking for and it’s now the law in the UK. But
we aren’t on track. For twenty years we’ve been trying to
solve the problem with new or breakthrough technologies
that supply energy and allow industry to keep growing, so
we don’t have to change our lifestyles. But although some
exciting new technology options are being developed, it
will take a long time to deploy them, and they won’t be
operating at scale within thirty years.
Meanwhile, our cars are getting heavier, we’re flying more
each year and we heat our homes to higher temperatures.
We all know that this makes no sense, but it’s difficult to
start discussing how we really want to address climate
change while we keep hoping that new technologies will
take the problem away.
In response, this report starts from today’s technologies: if
we really want to reach zero emissions in thirty years time,
what does that involve? Most of what we most enjoy –
spending time together as families or communities, leisure,
sport, creativity – can continue and grow unhindered.
We need to switch to using electricity as our only form
of energy and if we continue today’s impressive rates of
growth in non-emitting generation, we’ll only have to cut
our use of energy to 60% of today’s levels. We can easily
achieve this with incremental changes to the way we use
energy: we can drive smaller cars and take the train when
possible, use efficient electric heat-pumps to keep warm
and buy buildings, vehicles and equipment that are better
designed and last much longer.
The two big challenges we face with an all electric future
are flying and shipping. Although there are lots of new
ideas about electric planes, they won’t be operating at
commercial scales within 30 years, so zero emissions
means that for some period, we’ll all stop using aeroplanes.
Shipping is more challenging: although there are a few
military ships run by nuclear reactors, we currently don’t
have any large electric merchant ships, but we depend
strongly on shipping for imported food and goods.
In addition, obeying the law of our Climate Change
Act requires that we stop doing anything that causes
emissions regardless of its energy source. This requires that we stop eating beef and lamb – ruminants who release methane as they digest grass – and already many people have started to switch to more vegetarian diets.
However the most difficult problem is cement: making cement releases emissions regardless of how its powered, there are currently no alternative options available at scale and we don’t know how to install new renewables or make new energy efficient buildings without it.
We need to discuss these challenges as a society. Making
progress on climate change requires that the three key
groups of players – government, businesses and individuals
work together, rather than waiting for the other two to
act first. But until we face up to the fact that breakthrough
technologies won’t arrive fast enough, we can’t even begin
having the right discussion.
Committing to zero emissions creates tremendous
opportunities: there will be huge growth in the use and
conversion of electricity for travel, warmth and in industry,
growth in new zero emissions diets, growth in materials
production, manufacturing and construction compatible
with zero emissions, growth in leisure and domestic travel,
growth in businesses that help us to use energy efficiently
and to conserve the value in materials.
Bringing about this change, and exploring the
opportunities it creates requires three things to happen
together: as individuals we need to be part of the process,
exploring the changes in lifestyle we prefer in order to
make zero emission a reality. Protest is no longer enough –
we must together discuss the way we want the solution to
develop; the government needs to treat this as a delivery
challenge – just like we did with the London Olympics, ontime
and on-budget; the emitting businesses that must
close cannot be allowed to delay action, but meanwhile
the authors of this report are funded by the government to
work across industry to support the transition to growth
compatible with zero emissions.
Breakthrough technologies will be important in future but
we cannot depend on them to reach our zero emissions
target in 2050. Instead this report sets an agenda for a
long-overdue public conversation across the whole of UK
society about how we really want to achieve Absolute Zero
within thirty years.