Could the UK become ‘carbon neutral’ in just 30 years?

Plans for the UK to become ‘carbon’ neutral by 2050 have been released by Theresa May‘s government, but experts are concerned over how the proposals will work.

The new report commits to ensuring that the emissions generated by the UK are offset by removing the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere.

There are two main ways this can be achieved – by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export it’s carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

Some experts argue that the scheme is a way for developed nations to shirk their environmental obligations, by passing them to poor and developing countries.

All in all, this leaves Mrs May’s proposals looking more like a vanity project than an achievable goal for change. 

Plans for the UK to become 'carbon' neutral by 2050 have been released by Theresa May's government, but experts are concerned over how the proposals will work (file photo)

Plans for the UK to become ‘carbon’ neutral by 2050 have been released by Theresa May’s government, but experts are concerned over how the proposals will work (file photo)

The UK is the first developed nation to commit to a ‘net zero’ pledge on carbon emissions.

The government says the move will also benefit people’s health, as well as reducing air and noise pollution.

Not everyone is convinced of the benefits of the methods hinted at in the report, however, particular carbon offsetting.

Craig Bennett, UK chief executive of Friends of the Earth, said: ‘It is disappointing that the Government has ignored its climate advisers’ recommendation to exclude carbon offsets – as well as caving into Treasury pressure to review the target in five years’ time.

‘Fiddling the figures would put a huge dent in our ability to avoid catastrophic climate change – and the Government’s credibility for taking this issue seriously. 

‘Having declared a climate emergency, Parliament must act to close these loopholes.

‘2050 is still too slow to address catastrophic climate change, the UK can and must go faster. 

‘The next prime minister must legislate to end our contribution to climate breakdown earlier, put carbon-cutting at the centre of policy-making and pull the plug on plans for more roads, runways and fracking.

‘It’s now time to build the carbon-free future that science requires and the public are so loudly demanding.’ 

The plans involve offsetting or eliminating emissions from every aspect of modern life, including electricity generation, transport and heating.

This would be achieved through measures like the adoption of electric vehicles, switching to renewable energy sources and getting rid of gas powered hobs and boilers.

There are currently no plans for how to reduce emissions from the aviation industry or industrial process like steel and cement production, which are harder to tackle.  

The carbon emitted from these kinds of processes would need to be offset by tree planting. 

The new report commits to ensuring that the emissions generated by the UK are offset by removing the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere - by planting more trees and by installing 'carbon capture' technology at the source of the pollution (stock image)

The new report commits to ensuring that the emissions generated by the UK are offset by removing the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere – by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution (stock image)

How will the plans impact everyday life in the UK? 

The government says it will try and make the changes needed to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions as painlessly as possible but radical measures may be needed if the plan is to succeed.

Energy efficiency measures are one way that the government hopes to reduce carbon emissions.

That includes further adoption of LED lighting and more energy efficient household goods and gadgets.

A switch away from fossil fuels will also be necessary, ditching gas-fuelled hobs and boilers in favour of electric devices.

This will also mean the UK will need to produce its electricity in a ‘greener’ fashion, by expanding its wind and solar power infrastructure.

How much will the proposed changes cost? 

The exact cost of the measures to come has not been published by the government, but Chancellor Philip Hammond has said it may be as much as £1 trillion by 2050.

Finding this money may involve cuts to public services, including schools, police and the NHS. 

Climate change sceptic Bjorn Lomborg, author of Skeptical Environmentalist, said: ‘Mr Hammond is right to highlight the cost – and in fact, he is likely to be underestimating the real price tag.’ 

However, some say that the boost to the green economy – providing new jobs in the renewable sector, for example – may help to offset the costs.

The government also argues that the positives of the project – including cutting the costs of healthcare associated with pollution – will also mitigate the measures.

Will the proposals work?

The Government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change last month recommended putting a new goal into law to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 100 per cent by 2050. 

Activists have been urging Mrs May to implement its recommendations before her departure as Prime Minister.

A ‘statutory instrument’ will be put before MPs on Wednesday, in an attempt to fast track the measures through Pariliament.

However, as with any legislation, future governments could work to overturn the changes if they have sufficient support among the public and fellow politicians. 

What problems with the plans do experts envisage? 

The UK has already committed to reducing 80 per cent of its emissions by 2050, a target that had seemed already unrealistic. 

Experts have warned that the measures needed to cut emissions further may not be well received among the public.

Speaking to the BBC, Dr Shaun Fitzgerald – director of the Royal Institution – warned that measures like turning down thermostats in the home to reduce energy demands are not likely to be popular.

He also questioned how practical measures like better insulating homes might be, if they are to be adopted en-masse. 

He aided: ‘The prize for improving the efficiency of buildings is significant. 

‘However, there is a practical challenge in terms of the number of sufficient skilled workers to undertake the work, and then of course the barrier of getting homeowners to get the work done.’

Infrastructure changes needed to adopt renewable energy generation are also likely to be problematic, experts say. 

WHAT IS CARBON CAPTURING AND HOW DOES IT WORK? 

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) captures emissions produced from the use of fossil fuels in electricity generation and industrial processes.

It aims to prevent the carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere and is able to capture up to 90 per cent of the carbon dioxide (CO2) they emit.

The use of CCS with renewable biomass is one of the few carbon abatement technolo­gies that can be used in a ‘carbon-negative’ mode ­– actually taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

The process consists of three parts – capturing the carbon dioxide; transporting the carbon dioxide; and securely storing the carbon dioxide emissions.

These can be stored underground in depleted oil and gas fields or deep saline aquifer formations.

Carbon capture technologies allow the separation of carbon dioxide from gases produced in electricity generation and industrial processes by one of three methods: pre-combustion capture; post-combustion capture; and oxyfuel com­bustion.

Carbon dioxide is then transported by pipeline or by ship for safe storage. Millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide are already transported annually for commercial purposes by road tanker, ship and pipelines. 

The carbon dioxide is then stored in carefully selected geological rock formation that are typically located several miles below the earth’s surface.

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