As awareness of the impacts of climate change continues to
grow, and the tone of climate activists worldwide becomes increasingly
panic-stricken, governments are starting to introduce radical targets in order
to counteract the impacts of climate change. Although the 2016 Paris Agreement
saw a worldwide commitment to limiting global temperature rise, its lack of
binding targets with regard to greenhouse gas emissions has led governments to
set their own.
Among the most ambitious of those targets has been the UK’s:
a pledge to reduce the UK’s emissions to “net zero” by 2050. If this target is
reached, the UK will not be contributing a net increase in atmospheric carbon
Net-Zero: An Impossible Goal?
Achieving this goal is inherently difficult: decarbonisation
is the focus of intensive research and development efforts, in order to make
technology both viable and affordable, but in many cases the technology is
already there, it just needs political support to stimulate uptake. This can be
seen in practice by comparing the UK’s transport and energy generation sectors.
In the energy sector, financial support for renewable generation is widely
available, and there has been a significant policy push to deploy renewable
energy more widely. This has resulted in a 60% drop in emissions from the
energy sector between 1990 and 2017. Contrast this with the transport sector,
where, even though financial support is available for biofuels, wider
deployment has been limited as a result of both technical and political
barriers (such as blend limits and feedstock availability). Duly, the transport
sector has only delivered a 2% reduction in emissions over the same time
period, significantly lagging behind all other sectors.
Totally zero emissions is, however, not going to be possible
just by cutting emissions from all sectors, as zero-emissions options aren’t
feasible everywhere. Energy- (particularly heat-) intensive industrial
processes are always going to require heat through burning of fuel (be it
fossil fuels or biomass), and incineration remains the most viable non-landfill
solution for dealing with mixed non-recyclable waste, to name but two examples.
This is where the key stipulation of net zero emissions comes into play – the UK is aiming to account for all of these
unavoidable emissions by actively reducing atmospheric carbon – i.e. preventing
those emissions from ever reaching the atmosphere. Once again, the technology
to achieve this does already exist: Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Properly
implemented, this technology can reduce the effective emissions from emitting
processes to relevantly low levels.
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