Net zero: delusional ambition or deliverable goal?

“Dirty Old Town” by JanetR3 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“This country led the world in innovation during the Industrial Revolution, and now we must lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth. Standing by is not an option. Reaching net zero by 2050 is an ambitious target but it is crucial that we achieve it to ensure we protect our planet for future generations.”

So said Theresa May in June 2019, perhaps mindful of her ‘legacy’ as prime minister,  just weeks before standing down. She ensured that the net zero target was written into law, binding her successors in office at least to consider how it might be achieved.

Many environmentalists and others interested in ‘green’ issues were very surprised at the sudden announcement that the UK would be a ‘net-zero’ emitter of greenhouse gases within 30 years. It sounded very impressive – certainly ambitious – but there was scepticism that the target could be met.

The chief scientist for Greenpeace UK said, “it was a big moment for everyone in the climate movement” but that the “loopholes” (mainly the trading of carbon credits, whereby the UK would pay for reductions in emissions elsewhere so that they need not be so severely cut here), were “just trying to shift the burden to developing nations. […] This type of offsetting has a history of failure and is not, according to the government’s climate advisers, cost-efficient.”

Given that we are not currently on track to meet the previous target of an 80 per cent cut in greenhouse gases by 2050, as things stand the country is very unlikely to meet the new net-zero target unless far more stringent measures are adopted.

But this government is not preparing us properly for the lifestyle changes many of us will have to make if the country is to achieve net-zero; instead we are continually being made promises about how green and pleasant a land the UK is now going to be. It seems barely a week goes by without some new initiative being announced in a blaze of publicity.

We’re going to spend millions helping people heat their homes better!

Bottled gas heating is still the reality in many homes. Cornwall 365 – Day 92” by Ennor is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When it was launched in September 2020, the Green Homes Grant scheme aimed to retrofit insulation and new boilers to 600,000 homes in the first six months, but achieved only 10 per cent of this, bogged down with all kinds of problems, and it was abandoned in March 2021. The Environmental Audit Select Committee’s report, published the same month, said that: “in England alone, over ten million owner-occupied homes and over three million private rented sector landlords need to upgrade the energy efficiency of their homes to become A, B or C rated by 2035 for the Government to achieve its climate aspirations. We consider the Government has significantly underestimated how much decarbonising our homes will cost, and it needs to get a grip on this now, before it is too late”.

We’re going to restore the peatlands and plant millions of trees!

It’s true that trees and undisturbed peat wetlands do sequester carbon (amongst other benefits), but it seems contradictory of the government to announce such initiatives at the same time as:

  • a major road-building programme – which will take much previously-unbroken ground;
  • the building of hundreds of thousands of houses (170,000 completed in 2018-19), many on new sites instead of ‘brownfield’ ones; and
  • the forcing through of the HS2 project, which involves tearing up rare ancient woodlands and unploughed Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Incidentally, HS2 is going to cost £106bn at the latest guesstimate, will only reduce the journey time – at best estimates – by 25 minutes between London and Leeds (if it eventually gets that far north), is of disputed value to the economies of the Midlands or the North, and will do nothing to improve the woefully inadequate regional public transport provision, for example between Manchester and Leeds, where people desperately need better bus and rail services right now.

As for the proposed third runway at Heathrow, (which is now ‘on’ again after the judgement by the Supreme Court in December 2020, and which would result in huge emissions of carbon both during the construction process and afterwards), surely any government which is really serious about reducing carbon emissions would force the project to be abandoned once and for all?

Even if they are cared for and reach maturity, will all the trees the government wants planted eventually absorb enough carbon to compensate for all this upheaval and concrete? There must be a huge element of uncertainty. The irony is lost on many, but a huge tree-planting programme looks good: what a green government we have!

We’ll soon all be driving round in clean electric cars!

The government has announced that from 2030 sales of new diesel or petrol vehicles will be banned, but only one in four households are intending to buy an electric vehicle within the next five years. The cars are widely seen as prohibitively expensive and many people worry about how far they would be able to drive without needing to recharge. The Climate Change Committee thinks that 1,170 chargepoints for electric vehicles will be required per 100 km of road by 2030. That’s a very ambitious figure, given that currently we have just 15,787 locations across the whole UK, as calculated by

The south-west is particularly ill-served with public charging points, with fewer than 5 per cent of the overall total. So there’s considerable work and investment required if this policy is going to deliver. And large petrol and diesel trucks are to be phased out altogether by 2040, on the basis that alternative fuel systems – hydrogen and overhead electricity amongst them – will be in use by then. But the Road Haulage Association has dismissed this as “unrealistic”, saying that such vehicles don’t yet exist.

We’re going to have 4,000 zero-emission buses!

This was announced with typical fanfare by the prime minister in February 2020, when he said £5bn – only part of it government money – would be put into the bus transport system for new vehicles, new routes, and new operating methods like ‘turn up and go’ provision so that people wouldn’t have to rely on antiquated systems like timetables: all very flash. The money is intended, apparently, to be shared with provision of 250 miles of improved cycle-ways, which – in theory – can only be a good thing. But £5bn, although it sounds a lot, probably won’t go very far, even if it can actually be secured. The Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership has published a paper suggesting funding options for such a programme and has calculated that there are currently fewer than 700 such buses in service: it’s clear that “the DfT will need to act fast and dig deep if they are to hit their target!”

Carry on Flying!

Best of all, we Brits, who take a jaw-dropping proportion of international flights compared with other nations, can carry on flying around the world as much as we like, because we’ll soon have wonderful new low-emission aircraft! Unfortunately this promise has already been rubbished both by environmentalists and aviation experts, who say it’s overly dependent upon the introduction of technology which is still only in very preliminary experimental stages. So we should be prepared to see this promise quietly dropped too.

Indeed the entire “Decarbonising Transport Plan” published in July 2021, is apparently heavy on the innovation the government assures us will happen, but of which surely there is no guarantee.

Perhaps most worrying is that the ‘cunning plan’ has yet to be approved by the Treasury. Many of us – environmentalists, ‘green’ activists, and just concerned members of the public – will wince at a comment made to Sky News by Chris Venables from the Green Alliance: “Unless we see action now from the Treasury, and from Rishi Sunak, the decarbonising transport plan and any plan on climate that comes over the coming weeks, won’t deliver what it needs to, and we won’t see a serious and credible plan from this government on climate change.”

The omens aren’t good: there are rumours of a row between government departments on the costs of decarbonising central heating systems in homes and offices, and a second row over how to compensate for the shortfall in road tax which will result from the transition to electric cars. With COP26 in Glasgow not that far off now (November), the government will be hoping to create the impression that the UK is ahead of the pack, to be envied and emulated in its determination to carry out high-tech, large-scale, costed policies to address the climate crisis.

The reality may be somewhat different.