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Net-zero emissions: What is it and how will the UK achieve it?

Most of us know the UK wants to reach net-zero emissions, but the details are murky. Here we set out the facts of the most important target in the fight to stop the climate crisis
Ditching cars in favour of more walking and cycling will be key in reaching net-zero emissions and will boost UK health too. "Cycle commuters" by kube414 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

At the heart of the UK’s fight against the climate crisis is a target of 2050 for reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists around the world agree it is the best way to tackle global heating before it’s too late.

Between overhauling the jobs market under a “green revolution”, tackling poverty by making homes more energy efficient and investing in new technologies, reaching net-zero underpins government strategy across the country. The UK was the first major economy in the world to set a 2050 net-zero target. COP26, the global climate summit, will host world leaders in Glasgow later this year.

And public awareness of the concept is on the rise. More than three quarters of people (76 per cent) said they knew about aiming for net-zero in the Government’s December 2020 attitudes survey, compared to just 52 per cent in March last year.

But the details of the UK’s net-zero goal aren’t clear to everyone. Only four per cent of the 4,022 people surveyed by the Government said they knew a lot about it. One in five (20 per cent) knew “hardly anything” about the concept, though they had heard of it. 

Here’s what you need to know about what net-zero is, why it could make a difference and how the Government plans to achieve it.

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What is net-zero?

The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere reached a record high last year, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

These gases trap heat in the atmosphere, warming the surface of the earth and the air above it. Cutting down on our emissions is the most effective way to reverse the climate emergency, and urgently. 

Reaching net-zero means balancing the amount of planet-heating greenhouse gas we produce with the amount we remove from the atmosphere.

How will the UK achieve net-zero emissions?

One of the ways it plans to do this is by phasing out the use of coal for generating electricity, with a consultation currently open on plans to phase it out entirely by 2024. It will be replaced by sustainable energy sources like solar, wind, hydrogen and tidal. 

Renewable energy powered more UK electricity than fossil fuels for the first time in 2020. It made up 42 per cent of electricity compared to 41 per cent from gas and coal plants, think tank Ember said. The UK Government also plans to invest in expanding the UK’s nuclear power sector.

However ministers recently came under fire for giving the green light to proposals for a new coal mine in Cumbria, the first in 30 years.

One of the Prime Minister’s key climate talking points is a green jobs drive. This means investing in public transport, renewable energy, nature restoration, tackling deforestation and flood defences, as well as adapting existing industries to cut down on carbon.

The Prime Minister’s “green industrial revolution” will create and support up to 250,000 jobs by 2030, Westminster claimed. The sale of petrol and diesel vehicles will be banned in 2030. From that point, all new cars and vans must be electric-powered.

The Government’s fuel poverty strategy couples with the effort to boost energy efficiency for as many buildings as possible.

Carbon capture and storage technology will also play a key part in the journey to net-zero. It captures carbon dioxide from power generation and industrial processes then stores it underground where it cannot enter the atmosphere. The UK could store under the North Sea. The Government will release details on its carbon capture investment later this year.

Why 2050 for net-zero?

The goal of reaching net-zero emissions is to prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100, which scientists say is key to minimising soaring temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather. 

But reaching net-zero by 2050 actually only means having a 50 per cent chance of keeping temperatures below the 1.5°C limit, the Committee on Climate Change said. Experts and policymakers did not think it would be realistic to reach net-zero before 2050.

How much does net zero cost?

There is a lot of uncertainty around the journey to net-zero, so calculating exact figures is difficult for experts. But in 2019 the Climate Change Committee (CCC) estimated the total costs would be £50 billion per year, which is less than one per cent of GDP, while the Treasury said it could be closer to £70 billion per year.

Action taken to save the planet will save the Government money, too. Better air quality and less reliance on cars will improve UK health. This could ease pressure on the NHS, which the CCC said could “partially or fully offset costs”.