Britain's Decarbonisation: Lessons and Inspirations
Updated: Apr 6
Credits: The Guardian
'Decarbonisation' literally means reduction of carbon levels in the atmosphere. More precisely, it means shifting to an economic system that sustainably reduces and compensates for the emissions of Carbon Dioxide.
Contrary to popular belief, the goal of decarbonisation is not to eliminate the Carbon Dioxide completely from the atmosphere, but to bring it to the levels prior to human intervention.
According to The World Economic Forum, “There is a scientific consensus that climate stability requires full decarbonisation of our energy systems and zero net greenhouse gas emissions by around 2070”. The G7 - seven largest economies - recognised this in 2015 and took a revolutionary decision of totally decarbonising their economies during this century.
In 2015 coal produced 25% of Britain’s electricity, whereas, today it accounts for less than 2% of it. However, six years past this breakthrough and there has been very little development since then by all the G7 countries, but one: The United Kingdom. It initiated decarbonisation as soon as possible, something that has been highlighted to be extremely crucial by organisations like the World Bank for two reasons:
It is cost effective and ensures that the pollution causing factories which are under construction are shut at the earliest. The alternative is delays, which implies the continued construction of dirty power plants and other capitals that create “committed emissions.” For example, the fossil-fueled power plants built in 2012 alone will emit nearly 19 billion tons of CO2 over their expected span of 40 years, more than the annual emissions of all operating fossil- fueled power plants in 2012.
An early action is also required because if these countries do not invest in new technologies such as carbon capture now, which are still in their developing stage, they may not exist when it becomes an absolute necessity.
What Did the United Kingdom Do Right?
In 2019, the UK government amended the original Climate Change Act target to zero net emissions by 2050. All sources of greenhouse gas emissions must go to a level such that the carbon capture and storage, possibly combined with atmospheric CO2 extraction methods, must remove the rest. The Drax Electric Insight Report of 2020 found that the efforts made by the United Kingdom to shift to renewable energy sources has led to a faster rate of decarbonisation over the last decade than anywhere else in the world. There was a fall in power demand even though the population grew by around 7% and the GDP rose by around a quarter.
However, it is also important to understand that reduction in power generated through non renewable resources is not enough. It also has to be substituted by other alternativesvsuch as electric vehicles or the ones which run on renewable resources. Only if the later is followed along with the former can a country achieve net zero decarbonisation. This is something that the United Kingdom has been able to achieve to a major extent with the conscious attempt of promoting energy generation through renewable means. This effort by the United Kingdom is visible by the fact that renewable power has grown six folds in the last decade, helping UK to cut its carbon intensity by 58%. This is double the reduction seen in other major economies over the same period.
This success by The United Kingdom has given it some form of dominance in the international climate dialogues which is evident from the fact that this year it will be co-hosting Conference of Parties 26 or COP 26 as it is commonly known, in Glasgow. The PM Boris Johnson is aggressively deploying resources in the ‘Climate Diplomacy’ to redefine 'Post Brexit Britain’s Role'.
Decarbonising the Electricity is Easy, Now Comes the Hard Part
This is not the first time The United Kingdom has been at the centre of decarbonisation in the global arena. Before this Margaret Thatcher, another conservative but more importantly a historical figure, was the first sitting head of a government to deliver a speech on the existential threats of climate change. However, the impetus she gave to the decarbonisation policies was a by product of some of her other programmes and policies. For instance, in the pursuit of crushing the coalworker’s union, she significantly devastated an industry which heavily depended on the consumption and production of carbon and its products.
However, under the leadership of Boris Johnson decarbonisation has become a conscious effort of the government, and more importantly, a part of its core policies. Therefore, it is going to face a separate set of problems during this campaign. The tricky bit of this adventurous pursuit is that while zero carbon emission is the aim, zero carbon electricity is just one part of it. Other important parts include decarbonising other constituents of the economy such as transport. While Britain has fared extremely well in decarbonising it’s electric grids (which experts hope will become redundant by the next decade or so), it has not been able to perform well in other areas. Where emissions related to electricity generation plunged by 66% between 1990 and 2019, the equivalent reduction for transport, which is now the largest source of emissions in Britain, was just 5%.
It is much harder to decarbonise heat than to decarbonise electricity. This is because the immediate short run change the consumers notice when going for renewable substitutes is an increase in prices and therefore, a bigger hole in their pockets. This increase in price is partly because of the relatively low investment in renewable resource technology. Naturally, consumers will not shift to such alternatives on their own. The government will have to formulate policies and measures to nudge people to move to such alternatives. This of course is something which is extremely difficult as it presents itself with several policy challenges.
This article puts a special emphasis on heat because it is an important contributor to the emissions and at the same time is one of the most difficult aspects of decarbonisation Britain is currently facing. Most of the houses in Britain are poorly insulated and due to the cold climate, people prefer to have warm houses. These houses tend to be warmer with the gas than with the electricity because of its high energy density. The kind of infrastructure that is required to significantly alter these fundamental habits and the lifestyle of people requires large amounts of money to be spent both by the people as well as the government.
Political Landscape for the Decarbonisation
Lord Deben, chair of the Committee on Climate Change, told a conference this week that all three major parties were approaching the issue of decarbonisation too “delicately”. The three major parties, the liberal democrats, the democrats and the conservatives, have all committed to net zero carbon emissions although each of them have different deadlines for the same.
The MPs say the Treasury has changed its guidance to ensure departments place greater emphasis on the environmental impacts of their policies, but hasn't explained how this will work in practice. MPs also claim that the government is not yet ensuring that its activities to reduce emissions in Britain are not simply transferring those emissions overseas - where so many of the carbon-intensive goods bought in Britain's shops are made. They also blame the government for failing to engage with the public.
Meg Hillier, the committee's Labour Chairwoman, said, "The government has set itself a huge test in committing the UK to a net zero economy by 2050 - but there is little sign that it understands how to get there”
The challenges of heat and transport are already showing up on Britain’s carbon budget. The country is no longer on track to meet its own legally mandated targets for reducing emissions. In 2017 BEIS projected that Britain was set to miss its 2030 target by 8%. A year later that gap widened to 10%. The problems posed by transport and heating are largely responsible.
Richard Black from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) said, "The lack of clarity on the vision for COP26 is seriously concerning. It is surely obvious that COP26 has to set the global economy on track to net zero emissions by mid-century. This means brokering agreements that kickstart decarbonisation in various sectors and it also means Boris Johnson, stepping up to the plate on finance to help the poorest nations.Failure to sort this will fatally compromise COP26 - and the failure will lie squarely at the door of Downing St."
A government spokeswoman responded, "It is nonsense to say the government does not have a plan when we have been leading the world in tackling climate change, cutting emission by almost 44 per cent since 1990 and doing so faster than any other developed nation in recent years.
Only this week in the Budget we built on the prime minister's Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution by encouraging private investment in green growth, and we are bringing forward bold proposals to cut emissions and create new jobs and industries across the whole country."
There are several aspects to this visibly strenuous mission that the Johnson Government has done right, and at the same time, there are several aspects which need to be enquired into. The government needs to understand that the sole way of achieving its goal is to venture completely into this arena of decarbonisation and not stay in limbo with respect to the old and new paradigm due to the politics of it.
The kind of green government that Boris Johnson's government is trying to project itself needs to be unafraid of making itself the enemy of old carbon intensive industries (which happens to be an extremely strong lobby), which it is not doing at the moment.
Britain’s example presents a worrying challenge to the entire world: How do you decarbonise and not lose political power? Several politicians in the west have tried to implement taxes on carbon and subsequently lost support in either political or economic ways.That’s the biggest thing the British government can do: provide a pathway for larger economies to follow decarbonisation and not lose power. Whether the UK is able to achieve this or not is a talk of the future and is something that one can only be predicted and not known.
By Yashovardhan Singh
Yashovardhan Singh is a 1st year economics student at Hindu College. He is extremely passionate about political and economic theories and likes to spend his days watching movies.