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What the U.K.’s Target of Net Zero Emissions Would Really Entail

Gautam Kalghatgi, National Review

Vast sums of money and resources would be spent for little gain and perhaps great environmental harm.

In 2019, Britain’s Conservative government toughened existing climate-change legislation by setting the country the target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 (the previous target had been 80 percent). There are other yet more ambitious proposals, providing for full decarbonization at even earlier dates, such as Extinction Rebellion’s 2025 and the Green Party’s 2030. In addition, other policies such as banning the sale of new cars and vans with internal-combustion-engines from 2030 are under serious consideration by the government in order to decarbonize transport as part of the overall CO2 target.

As discussed below, the challenges of the energy transition required are enormous enough to seem unsurmountable and don’t seem to be sufficiently appreciated by those who set the targets. The scale of the challenge is great. A schedule, a budget, and engineering targets need to be put in place, and the work needs to start immediately, if the government is serious about meeting the targets for zero carbon emissions. It won’t be easy.
Target: Zero Net Carbon Emissions by 2050

Fossil fuels, coal (7.9 mtoe, million tonnes of oil equivalent), oil (68.5 mtoe) and gas (875.6 TWh, or 75.3 mtoe) supplied 151.7 mtoe, or 79.6 percent of the primary energy used in the U.K. in 2019, while wind and solar accounted for 3.47 percent of the total primary energy-use (BEIS).
How much additional CO2-free energy will the United Kingdom need to generate by 2050 to replace fossil fuels?

Let us assume that by 2050 the United Kingdom will need to replace only 60 percent of current fossil-fuel energy use (91 mtoe, or 1,058 terawatt hours (TWh) by CO2-free energy, thanks to greater overall energy efficiency. Even on this extremely optimistic assumption, the U.K. will need 121 gigawatts (GW) of new continuous CO2-free power generation, equivalent to 40 nuclear plants of 3 GW each or to 100,000 offshore wind turbines of 3 MW each, given a capacity factor of 0.4 — i.e., 10 MW installed capacity will deliver only 4 MW on average because it is not available all the time. The scope for large growth in the U.K. for inland wind or hydro power is limited. Solar, though coming down in cost, has a very low capacity factor of 0.1. Wind and solar will also require storage systems to cope with intermittency. Incidentally, 1,610 GW of new continuous CO2-free power generation will be needed for the U.S. to replace 60 percent of its current fossil-fuel use.

The existing energy infrastructure has to be dismantled

According to PHAM News, an estimated 26 million gas boilers are installed in the U.K. These are supposed to be converted to electric (heat pumps) heating by 2050. Are there enough heating engineers and electricians in the country to implement this? Are households expected to bear the cost of conversion, or is the government going to pay for this? The enormous challenges of rebuilding the electricity-distribution network required by such changes have been discussed by Mike Travers in The Hidden Cost of Net Zero: Rewiring the U.K., a report from the Global Warming Policy Foundation. He estimates that the total cost will run up to £466 billion, much of which might have to be borne by households.
Net zero will also involve decarbonizing transport, supposedly by eliminating internal-combustion engines (ICEs). This will also require huge investments in new infrastructure (as discussed below) but is not likely to deliver significant reductions in CO2. In addition, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture would also need to be taken to zero if climate change is the real concern. Globally, livestock farming for meat and dairy contributes about 14 percent of global GHG, the same share as from all transport. The relevant percentages are likely to be similar for the U.K. Also, the steel, aviation, and cement industries, which are extremely difficult if not impossible to decarbonize, will need to be largely shut down by 2050. […] 


The energy transition needed to reach net zero carbon by 2050 is extremely challenging, and transport is the sector that is most difficult to decarbonize. All the alternatives to the current energy infrastructure start from a very low base and face very significant environmental and economic barriers to the sort of growth that will be required if net zero is to be achieved by the target date. The proposed changes must be assessed honestly on a life-cycle basis to ensure that they really provide the benefits that are promised and have no unintended consequences.

If, as will almost certainly be the case, not enough countries follow the U.K.’s “leadership,” it would be better to recognize that there will be little change to global GHG levels and to focus instead on efforts to improve energy and resource efficiency and on measures, such as better flood defenses, to adapt to climate change. Such realism would involve recognizing that internal-combustion engines will dominate transport globally for decades to come and that banning the sale of new ICEVs, including HEVs (a particularly senseless policy) from 2030 onward will condemn the U.K. to forgo any new developments in ICEV technology and remove the biggest and easiest opportunity to improve the efficiency and environmental impact of the U.K.’s transport sector.

Of course, if the British government is really serious about its net zero goal, concrete, time-bound initiatives with clear budget and engineering targets have to be set and implemented. Such targets could include, in the next ten years, reducing energy consumption by 13 percent and at the same time building 13 3-GW nuclear plants or 33,000 offshore 3-MW wind turbines; replacing 10 million gas boilers; building 700,000 public and 7 million private charging points for BEVs; rebuilding the electricity-distribution network appropriately; reducing steel, cement, aviation, and livestock farming by a third; and the list doesn’t stop there . . . The work has to start immediately and would then have to continue at the same pace for the following two decades. This would force the government to focus on the implications of what has been promised.

Clearly, since no such targets have been announced, it is almost certain that the government will miss its goal to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Meanwhile, vast sums of money and resources will have been spent for little gain and perhaps quite a bit of environmental harm, and a great deal of industrial production will have been outsourced. Soon there will be a realization that net zero will remain out of reach. After that will come the time for creative CO2 accounting, offsets, and apportioning of blame.

Full essay

see also GWPF paper by Gautam Kalghatgi: The Battery Car Delusion