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Environment

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

The government has laid out its net zero strategy for tackling climate change and curbing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The government has released its long-awaited net zero strategy, outlining the steps the UK will take to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

The document comes ahead of COP26 in November, a global conference in Glasgow where world leaders will agree on targets and aims for tackling the climate crisis. 

Scientists and experts around the world have agreed that reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is the best chance the planet has of tackling global warming before it’s too late. 

In a landmark 2021 report, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of a “code red” for humanity, saying that today’s global leaders are likely to be the last group of politicians with the ability to hit the net zero target.

Without action by those in power now, they warned, governments in place by the end of the decade will have run out of time to fix the crisis. 

The UK was the first major economy to set a 2050 net zero target, and its strategy for doing so has been anticipated for some time. 

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However, not everyone is aware of the UK’s target to reach net zero.

Just four per cent of the 4,022 people surveyed by the government when? 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. 

If you’re looking for an explanation, this is everything you need to know about the net zero target, how it could save the planet, and how the government plans to achieve it.

What is net-zero?

“Net zero” refers to a situation in which the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted are equal to the amount being removed from the atmosphere.

Net zero is not to be confused with total decarbonisation, which would involve emitting no greenhouse gases whatsoever. 

Under net zero plans, certain sectors of the economy – transport, for example – will continue to produce greenhouse gases.

The emissions from these sectors will be removed by carbon capture technologies or offset by other sectors which are  carbon negative themselves.

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How will the UK achieve net-zero emissions?

Greenhouse gases are gases which contribute to the “greenhouse effect” driving climate change. They include CO2 and methane. 

Buildups of these gases trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, warming the surface of the Earth and the air above it. 

It’s widely accepted that human activities over the past century have contributed to record levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere 

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

At the last COP conference in 2015, nearly 200 countries committed to keeping global warming below 1.5C above pre-industrial levels as part of the legally-binding Paris Agreement.

Net zero targets are being used by these countries as a method to stay within this limit. 

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Will net zero stop climate change? 

Thanks to historical greenhouse gas emissions, scientists say that much warming is already “locked in” even if the world does manage to stay within a 1.5C limit.

The IPCC have said this means some changes are already “irreversible”, with droughts, floods, heat waves and storms becoming more frequent.

However, the IPCC also said the 1.5C limit is humanity’s best chance to avoid the very worst effects of climate change. 

How will the UK achieve net-zero emissions?

The IPCC estimates that the planet is likely to go beyond the 1.5C threshold by 2040 without fast and drastic cuts to the greenhouse gases produced around the world.

The UK government laid out a strategy for cutting emissions and achieving net zero emissions by 2050, published on October 19. 

Key policies include ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 and making the UK entirely powered by clean electricity by 2035. 

The government also plans to invest in hydrogen production to aid the transition away from oil and gas. 

The UK has laid out ambitions to become a “world leader in zero emission flight” by making 10 per cent of all aviation fuel sustainable by 2030. 

Grants of £5,000 will be available from next year to encourage homeowners to replace their gas boiler with more eco-friendly heat pumps, with home heating accounting for almost a fifth of total UK emissions. 

A commitment to improving nature by planting 30,000 hectares of woodland per year is also included in the strategy.

Farmers, meanwhile, will be incentivised to practice low-carbon methods of farming to reduce emissions from agriculture.

The government has promised the green transition will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in sectors like renewable energy. 

Why 2050 for net zero?

The goal of reaching net-zero emissions is to prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100, which scientists say is key to minimising soaring temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather. The increase sits at around 1.1C so far.

But reaching net-zero by 2050 actually only means having a 50 per cent chance of keeping temperatures below the 1.5C limit, the Committee on Climate Change said. Experts and policymakers did not think it would be realistic to reach net-zero before 2050 though some nations have set earlier targets, including Scotland (2045).

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”.

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