Fly Less, Cut Meat, No Diesel: The U.K.'s Roadmap to Zero Carbon

(Bloomberg) -- British people need to fly less, drive electric cars, eat little meat and turn their home thermostats down to 19 degrees Celsius (66 Fahrenheit) in order to rein in greenhouse gases damaging the planet.

Those are the recommendations from the government’s official adviser on climate change and sketch out the toughest measures anywhere in the industrial world to rein in pollution. Drawn up by a panel including lawmakers, scientists, industry officials and analysts, their 277-page report also suggests a drastic overhaul for industry, agriculture and aviation.

The findings mark out the ways Prime Minister Theresa May and her successors can reach a target to cut net emissions to zero by 2050, something scientists say is necessary to prevent more violent storms and rising seas that come with climate change. It’s an indication that there’s a growing consensus on the environment in the U.K. even as lawmakers remain deeply divided about how the nation should leave the European Union.

“We are not asking people to lead a miserable life,” John Gummer, former Conservative lawmaker who chairs the Committee on Climate Change, told reporters in London before the report was released on Thursday. “We are looking to having as fulfilled, as different, as various a life as we have today and to do it in a way in which we take respect for the future.”

Fly Less, Cut Meat, No Diesel: The U.K.'s Roadmap to Zero Carbon

Sensing a lack of commitment from the British government, thousands of protesters from Extinction Rebellion took to the streets of London in April, blocking several main thoroughfares in a call for reaching net-zero emissions by 2025. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has said ministers should declare a climate emergency.

Ministers from governments across the political spectrum have traditionally endorsed suggestions from the committee. The government will consider the report and release a detailed response sometime in the future. Greg Clark, the Cabinet minister in charge of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, signaled that ministers are likely to endorse at least some of the findings.

“This report now sets us on a path to become the first major economy to legislate to end our contribution to global warming entirely,” Clark said in a statement.

Fly Less, Cut Meat, No Diesel: The U.K.'s Roadmap to Zero Carbon

Industry and environmental groups generally embraced the report’s findings, saying the government should now make clear what changes it will enshrine in law.

“The CCC’s analysis makes for a sobering read,” said Roz Bulleid, head of climate & environment policy at the manufacturers lobby group Make UK. “The key issue for manufacturers will be the policies and support mechanisms put in place to meet any net zero target, particularly how they ensure continued international competitiveness and spur innovation and investment in low-carbon technologies.”

The report suggested that:

  • Electric vehicles should replace ones running on gasoline or diesel by 2035 or earlier.
  • Coal should be phased out of the power grid in the 2020s, with renewables taking a bigger share.
  • Carbon-capture and storage plants should be built early in the next decade and expanded to absorb more emissions from remaining fossil-fuel plants.
  • Trees should be planted at a pace of 30,000 hectares (116 square miles) each year, double the current rate.
  • Buildings should draw heat from underground pumps and electricity, phasing out boilers fueled by natural gas.
  • Consumers should reduce food waste and eat things that require less carbon, prioritizing plant-based nutrients over meat.
  • Emissions cuts should be done without offsets from international carbon markets.

The committee called on government to “vigorously pursue an ambition target" of net-zero emissions. The European Union, France, Denmark and New Zealand are considering similar measures. Only Britain and France are suggesting limits that apply both for aviation and shipping.

Momentum to act on climate issues has been building since a panel of scientists convened by the United Nations warned last year that allowing temperatures to increase more than 1.5 degrees Celsius would bring vast changes to the world’s ecosystems -- and lower crop yields in most countries. While almost 200 nations signed up to voluntary emissions limits in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, tangible policy shifts have been slower to materialize.

Fly Less, Cut Meat, No Diesel: The U.K.'s Roadmap to Zero Carbon

The report suggests a significant tightening from the climate committee’s previous advice. Three years ago, the panel noted that Britain’s pledge under the Paris deal implied swifter emissions cuts than the current target, which is for an 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2050. At the time, the panel said there were few pathways toward steeper reductions and no plausible way to reach “net-zero.” Now, the group is saying that it’s the right moment to adopt a more ambitious target.

Part of that’s down to sharply lower costs. Wind and solar farms are much cheaper to install than just a few years ago as manufactures roll out more efficient equipment and developers sharpen up construction and finance methods. At the start of the decade, offshore wind was more expensive than new nuclear plants. Now it’s rivaling natural gas as one of the cheapest form of power generation -- cheap enough to work without subsidy in Germany and the Netherlands. The committee anticipates further reductions in the price of clean energy.

Fly Less, Cut Meat, No Diesel: The U.K.'s Roadmap to Zero Carbon

Because of those reductions, the panel estimated the cost of reaching “net-zero” emissions will be about 1 percent to 2 percent of gross domestic product to 2050. That’s about the same as what was estimated for the current target just a few years ago.

While the committee won’t put an overall figure on the cost of its ambitions, it did set out the implications for a number of industries. Annual costs include:

  • 15 billion pounds for a switch to low-carbon heating.
  • 5 billion pounds to 10 billion pounds for further emissions limits on industry.
  • 2 billion pounds for changes to the way agriculture uses land, which is less than what the U.K. pays to support the EU Common Agricultural Policy.
  • 10 billion pounds to 20 billion pounds to remove emissions from the atmosphere, primarily paid by industries like aviation that can’t cut further.
  • 12 billion pounds to fund lower-carbon electricity.

Those costs would be partly offset by annual savings of 5 billion pounds for transport using electric vehicles.

A big part of the assumptions made by the committee hinge on the U.K. fully embracing technologies and fuel sources that either aren’t yet viable or economical. Those include carbon capture and storage, where pollution is sucked out of factory smokestacks and sequestered underground. It also wants to see hydrogen used both in fuel cells and as storage for energy -- and as a greener form of gas.

“The challenge to parliament and government is you can do it, and if we don’t do, it is because you have chosen not to do it,” said Gummer of the CCC.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.