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09 December 2019

Getting to net-zero fast and slow

Frans Berkhout

FRANS BERKHOUT: Climate change policy is high on the agenda this time round, but there's divergence between parties when it comes to delivering on emissions targets

Solar panels

The Policy Institute is producing a series of comment pieces analysing election manifesto pledges from the different parties across a range of policy areas. Read the full series  here.  

Something dramatic happened to global consciousness of climate change in 2018 and politicians everywhere have been struggling to keep ahead of the issue. In the 2019 UK general election there is a remarkable consensus that radical action on climate change requires significant national attention, and a shared perception amongst the political parties that this will be popular with most voters.

The main difference between manifestos is about the speed of a transition to eliminate net positive greenhouse gases in the UK. There are also differences about the basic approach to achieve change: whether through the workings of regulated markets (Conservatives); or through a major new programme of public investment (Labour). The most detailed plans are set out by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, with the idea of a “Green New Deal” shared by Labour and the Greens.

Justifications also vary. For the Scottish National Party, tackling climate change is a “moral obligation”, the Tories argue that “conservation has always been at the very heart of Conservatism”, while for Labour, the Greens and to some extent the Lib Dems, this is all about transforming the economy and creating jobs.


If the real debate is about the rate at which the UK achieves net-zero, then there is now a simple way of judging the ambition of party programmes: how soon? The Conservatives say 2050, the Lib Dems and the SNP say 2045, Labour says that it will be “substantially” achieved by 2030, while the Greens set 2030 as the clear target.

Frans Berkhout

There is an international dimension to all this. The UK signed up to the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 and the Paris Agreement 2015 sets out targets for all signatory countries. Since then, the political urgency for action has accelerated. Greenhouse gas emissions globally continue to rise steeply, while understanding of the global risks of unconstrained climate change has sharpened.

Paris enshrined agreement to get to net-zero greenhouse emissions globally by the 2050s to avoid serious climate risks towards the end of the century and beyond. So, the time for action has suddenly been compressed. This is reflected in the new activism around a “climate emergency” demonstrated by climate strikes and protests in the UK and around the world. To achieve global net-zero, more of the effort will need to be made by richer countries, many of which have seen falling greenhouse gas emissions for several decades already. UK greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by about 45 per cent since 1990, mainly due to the elimination of coal from the national energy mix. Between July and September 2019, 40 per cent of power produced in the UK was from renewables, the first time since the late 19th century that fossil fuels have not been the main source of electricity. Truly an historic moment.

If the real debate is about the rate at which the UK achieves net-zero, then there is now a simple way of judging the ambition of party programmes: how soon? The Conservatives say 2050, the Lib Dems and the SNP say 2045, Labour says that it will be “substantially” achieved by 2030, while the Greens set 2030 as the clear target. We can compare these against the 2050 target which entered UK law as a revision of the Climate Change Act in June 2019, in one of the final acts of the May Government. In short, the Conservative target changes very little.

Are the more ambitious targets of the other parties achievable? UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 were about 460 tonnes. This doesn’t include emissions from quite a range of sources, including carbon embedded in imported goods, from international air travel, or emissions from degraded peatlands (fully 25MT a year in the UK). Defining exactly what is meant by net-zero remains a point of contention. Declines in UK emissions have accelerated since the Climate Change Act in 2008, a world-leading piece of legislation which fixed in law UK emissions targets. A simple projection of current trends would bring UK emissions to zero by about 2050. No need for additional policies one might think, but the hardest part is still to come.

The big sectors are electric power, built environment, transport and agriculture. On power the manifesto commitments vary. The Conservatives want 40GW of offshore wind by 2030, against 8.5GW today and with projects already underway to achieve 30GW by 2030. The Lib Dems have a target of 80 per cent renewable electricity by 2030, with the Greens projecting closer to a fully renewables power sector by then. Labour says it wants many more offshore and onshore wind farms and will create a new “Green Transformation Fund” to expand renewable and low-carbon energy, transport and environmental restoration. It will also create a new “National Investment Bank” providing lending for decarbonising the economy.

The power sector is comparatively easy. Much harder will be tackling emissions from transport, industry, housing and agriculture. Transport today causes about 25 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions, while housing accounts for about 15 per cent. The UK stock of homes and other buildings is generally old and very inefficient. New homes are being built at historically low rates and many of these are not being built to high energy standards. Each of the manifestos make promises about government funding for insulation and several of them speak of new energy standards for housing, with Labour and the Greens using substantial new public housing programmes as a way of imposing better standards on the whole housing sector. Several manifestos mention support for electric vehicles. The Lib Dems want every new car to be electric by 2030.

In the background in all these pledges, often implicit, is a political choice about the balance of roles to be played by public investment, technology support and regulation, private investment and citizens changing their behaviour. Each of these will have a role to play and the choices made insofar as where to prioritise policy will have an influence on whether net-zero is achieved quickly or more slowly.

Finally, why “net-zero” rather than just zero? The main reason is that eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions from energy and farming would be impractical. Some of these emissions will remain – estimated for the UK to be about 20-40% of current emissions. For these emissions some other route needs to be taken, usually through removal of carbon dioxide from the energy and industrial processes to be buried, typically in old oil and gas fields, by developing exotic new technologies for sucking CO2 out of the air directly, or by planting trees which fix carbon as they grow.

Carbon capture and storage schemes have proven controversial where they have been tried around the world – think fracking – and this may explain the sudden enthusiasm for tree-planting in many manifestos. The Lib Dems want to plant 60 million trees per year, the Conservatives seem to outdo them promising 75,000 acres of trees per year, equating to perhaps 70 million trees, while the Greens go for broke with a plan for 700 million trees. There are roughly seven billion trees in UK forests, so the Lib Dem and Conservative plans equate to an expansion of about one per cent per year of UK forests. Will this make a difference in storing additional carbon? Possibly not. A recent estimate of carbon storage in UK forests by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology estimates that UK forests are currently losing carbon. In any case, landowners, mostly farmers, need to be prepared to convert land indefinitely to forest and the policies to enable this are not always clear.

The 2019 election marks the most ambitious policy agenda from all parties we’ve yet seen on tackling the challenge of climate change. Yet, whether the manifesto pledges will see net reductions fall to the promised levels may not be apparent until several elections’ time, so it will be interesting to observe with what urgency policy is implemented by the next government to mitigate against the “climate emergency”.

Frans Berkhout is Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy and Professor of Environment, Society and Climate at King’s College London.

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