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How a future with zero net emissions might look for Britain...

With the Government’s announcement that Britain will make zero net emission law by 2050, experts from a diverse assortment of academic backgrounds have given their views on how they think that might work.

Theresa May has today pledged that the UK will enter into a legally binding agreement to become greenhouse neutral in little over 30 years.

It would mean that any emissions produced after 2050 would have to be offset by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere.

The new law will affect manufacturing, motoring, energy and numerous other sectors of the UK economy and day-to-day life.

To give an insight into how our lives could look in this new emission-free future, Loughborough's scientists, engineers and environmental specialists have put their thoughts to paper (keyboard).

Reader in Disaster Risk Management Dr Lee Bosher, of the School of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering: 

Overall, the intentions are well meant but it does smack of too little too late.

From my perspective, we are already feeling the impacts of a changing climate across the globe, for example, increased extent of heat waves across India (now), increased storms/hurricanes in the Atlantic last year are just a few examples of how the changing climate is impacting cities globally.

To be honest, at the moment I am more concerned about the other human-induced impacts on our planets, such as deforestation, development in hazard-prone locations, air pollution, over-abstraction of groundwater (leading to water shortages and land subsidence) etc.

Unless these issues are also dealt with seriously, the proposed target of zero emissions by 2050 will only be scratching the surface of the problem.

Anyway, if I am going to be very cynical, I suspect that the closer the UK gets to the US (and further away from the EU) the less likely this target will be taken seriously.

Chemical engineer Dr Jin Xuan, Senior Lecturer in Low Carbon Processes: 

The new Net Zero emission target is definitely a timely, necessary and positive move to beat the climate change. We believe that continuous research and innovation in novel energy and sustainability technologies is one of the key elements to realise such an ambitious target.

The UK already has a 2050 target to reduce emissions by 80%, which forms the basis of most of our on-going energy and sustainability research. The new ‘net zero’ target is expected to reshape the landscape of our current focus and impact our future research agenda.

We need to invest more in disruptive technologies to completely transform our energy and industrial systems. ‘Low-carbon technologies’ themselves may no longer be an adequate solution for the new Net Zero target. They have to be combined with transformative ‘negative emission technologies’ to achieve overall carbon neutral of our energy mix at the national level.

We also need to act more quickly than previously planned to cope with the new emission reduction roadmap. We will have to accelerate the knowledge transfer and deployment of new technologies which can intensively reduce carbon emission at large scale. This requires closer collaborations between the academia and industry.

In summary, we welcome the government’s new Net Zero emission target, and we are ready to contribute, through research and innovation, to stop the global warming and accelerate the clean growth of our economy. 

Geographer and Arctic researcher Dr Richard Hodgkins, Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography:

The commitment to making the UK carbon net zero by 2050 into a legal obligation is very welcome. The 2008 Climate Change Act was already a world-leading commitment, though it currently falls short of the requirements of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The UK’s advisory Committee on Climate Change has recently reported that the 2050 net zero target is achievable, and the CBI has been urging the government to provide a stable pathway for low-carbon business growth.

Naturally, firm and ambitious policies in the areas of energy generation, energy efficiency, transport, agriculture and more are necessary to follow through on this commitment.

There are also important concerns about the mooted 5-year review of the target and the proposed use of carbon offsets. Nevertheless, today marks an important step in the UK’s climate change journey.

The 2050 zero net commitment is broadly consistent with the IPCC’s recommendation for limiting global temperature increase to 1.5c.

Beyond this temperature, it is generally agreed that strong, positive feedbacks are likely to be triggered which will further accelerate the warming trend.

Many important feedbacks are derived from change in the Arctic, which is a focus for Loughborough Geography and Environment research.

Current research is looking at changes in wind and water behaviour in the landscape uncovered by glacial retreat and on the impact of such change on biogeochemistry and nutrient cycling. Similarly, Loughborough Politics and International Studies research is examining the geopolitical context and impacts of the changing Arctic.

Lecturer in Accounting Dr Petros Vourvachis, an expert in corporate social responsibility:

It’s wonderful news but as it has been emphasised by Greenpeace and others it’s important that this doesn’t mean we use somebody else’s credits to ensure our zero balance.

Physicist Dr Marco Mazza, who has modelled the growth of algae and plankton in world seas:

Anthropogenic global warming is an existential threat, whose scale we are only starting to understand.

For plankton, specifically phytoplankton, we already have evidence that global warming leads to a loss in the diversity of species, which bodes nefarious consequences – the loss of the prime producers of oxygen in the atmosphere.

In the most (admittedly) catastrophic scenario, loss of oxygen producers means death of anything that breathes oxygen.... in Britain and elsewhere.

If we ignore this doom and gloom scenario, I'd say collapse of fisheries, as phytoplankton is the base of the food chain in the oceans, is a more realistic scenario.

And fisheries are already near ecological collapse due to over-fishing. Therefore, many British communities relying on fishing will be strongly affected.

Also, global warming might destroy the Gulf current – because of change of ocean salinity.

The Gulf Stream brings warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico to Western Europe, and allows to grow roses in the UK, while at the same latitude in Northern Canada the polar bears hunt.

Thus there might be a drastic change of climate in the British Isles with all the societal ramifications.

The announcement mentions offsetting the CO2 emission with some sort of cap and trade, but this is sadly not a solution to the problem.

Design and environmental studies lecturer Dr Joanna Boehnert, of the School of the Arts, English and Drama:

The announcement signals the potential for a move in the right direction.

Unfortunately, in its current formulation, this legislation is far too little over far too long a time period.

Climate science has made it clear that decarbonisation of the economy is imperative. The next ten years are critically important to avoid triggering some of the most dangerous feedback mechanisms in the climate system.

The current 2050 target and the carbon exchange offsetting mechanism set to achieve the “zero net emissions” status are both unambitious.

Given the far more engaged policy commitment elsewhere, in Costa Rica and New Zealand for example, the UK should be taking a much more proactive position.

Furthermore, the 2050 target is relatively meaningless within an economic strategy of aiming at year on year growth of GDP through consumption.

If the government is serious about lowering carbon emissions, it needs to create the institutions that will work to redesign economic relationship for the benefit of the climate and all of us who rely on a stable climate system.

A good place to start would be the relaunch of the UK Sustainable Development Commission (terminated in 2011); renewed support for renewable energy (mostly terminated over the past decade) and far more comprehensive support for design, educational and community projects building transitions to low carbon futures.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 19/78

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