A net zero emissions plan for the UK

Photo of footprint made of coal

(Image courtesy: iStock/aykutsevinc)

In its new report, the government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change (CCC) says we should aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. It wants a legislated UK target for a 100% reduction in greenhouse gases from 1990 levels, which should cover all sectors of the economy, including international aviation and shipping, and be in the place this year. It should be met via UK effort, without relying on internationally traded carbon credits. With its higher emissions from agriculture, Wales should set a target for a 95% cut in emissions by 2050. Better-placed Scotland should aim for net-zero emissions by 2045, and in the interim 70% by 2030 and 90% by 2040; the Scottish government has now agreed to that.

However, the CCC says all this will need new policies: “current policy is insufficient for even the existing targets”. Its proposals certainly are quite ambitious. For example, the CCC looks to extensive electrification, particularly of transport. By 2035 at the latest, “all new cars and vans should be electric (or use a low-carbon alternative such as hydrogen)”. Electrification of heating is also backed strongly, with both these policies aided by a major expansion of renewable and other low-carbon power generation, including possibly some nuclear. Their scenarios have around a doubling of electricity demand, with all power produced from zero/low-carbon sources, compared to 50% today. The CCC says that could, for example, “require 75 GW of offshore wind in 2050, compared to 8 GW today and 30 GW targeted by the Government’s sector deal by 2030. 75 GW of offshore wind would require up to 7500 turbines and could fit within 1–2% of the UK seabed, comparable to the area of sites already leased for wind projects by the Crown Estate”.

The CCC also wants to see the development of a hydrogen economy to service demands for some industrial processes, for energy-dense applications in long-distance heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and ships, and for electricity supply and heating in peak periods, topping up the heat provided mainly by electric heat pumps. By 2050 “a new low-carbon industry is needed with UK hydrogen production capacity of comparable size to the UK’s current fleet of gas-fired power stations”. In addition, the CCC sees carbon capture and storage (CCS) expanding in industry especially, and thinks direct air capture may be viable, but it also calls for vast expansion of tree planting and carbon sequestration via revised farming practices, as well as a shift to less meat-eating, to further cut emissions.

Costs not prohibitive

Crucially the CCC says that, despite its ambitious technology programme, the “overall costs are manageable” although they “must be fairly distributed”. There have been rapid cost reductions from mass deployment for key technologies, e.g. the committee says, offshore wind and batteries for electric vehicles (EVs), so “we now expect that a net-zero GHG [greenhouse gas] target can be met at an annual resource cost of up to 1–2% of GDP to 2050, the same cost as the previous expectation for an 80% reduction from 1990”. However, “the transition, including for workers and energy bill payers, must be fair, and perceived to be fair. Government should develop the necessary frameworks to ensure this. An early priority must be to review the plan for funding and the distribution of costs for businesses, households and the Exchequer.”

the CCC adopts a belt and braces approach

Dave Elliott

“Electricity bill payers (households and businesses) currently pay around £7bn a year towards the roll-out of low-carbon power,” the CCC says. “This is expected to rise to around £12bn by 2030 then fall to 2050 as contracts for existing renewable generators come to an end and they are replaced by newer cheaper generation (e.g. our scenarios involve an annual resource cost of around £4bn in 2050). For households, the average costs so far, of £105 per household per year in 2016, have been more than outweighed by savings from improved energy efficiency: energy bills fell £115 in real terms from 2008 to 2016. That balance will continue to 2030 (i.e. overall bills need not rise as a result of climate policy).” And, generally, while the programme would need increased investment, that would be offset by reduced fuel costs: “For example, wind and solar farms are costly to build, but avoid the need to pay for gas and coal; energy efficiency involves an upfront cost followed by reduced energy use.” And by 2050, the CCC says, EV/electrification should “cut the annual costs of UK transport by around £5bn”.

Power-to-gas marginal

A key message underlying this optimism is that most of the technologies will be cheaper and offer cost-saving routes forward, although “CCS and hydrogen are important exceptions requiring both increased upfront spend and higher fuel costs”. Interestingly, in this context, the technical annex downplays the hydrogen “power-to-gas” (P2G) electrolysis route: “The cost of electricity would have to be less than £10/MWh for electrolysis to be the same cost as we expect for gas reforming with CCS in the UK, or energy consumption from electrolysis would have to reduce significantly. While there is some opportunity to utilize some ‘surplus’ electricity (e.g. from renewables generating at times of low demand) for hydrogen production, our modelling shows that the quantity is likely to be small in comparison to the potential scale of hydrogen demand. Producing hydrogen in bulk from electrolysis would be much more expensive and would entail extremely challenging build rates for zero-carbon electricity generation capacity.”

In its net-zero 2050 scenario CCC has a vast 270 TWh of hydrogen production, compared to around 300 TWh of electricity generation currently. Most (225 TWh) of this 270 W is produced from 29 GW of Steam Methane Reformation (SMR) plants using fossil gas, coupled with CCS to make it lower carbon. And only 2 TWh gets used for power-grid balancing. By contrast, there’s only 6–17 GW of renewable-powered electrolyser capacity at max (indeed just 2–7 GW is cited later on), depending on load factors, which the CCC says could range from 30–90%, with 74% efficiency. Running 90% of the time makes better use of the electrolyser, thus reducing costs. But that implies going beyond just using occasional renewable output surpluses (available maybe 30% of the time), so more renewable capacity would be needed, adding to the cost. “Our scenarios assume that hydrogen production at scale is done via gas-reforming with CCS rather than electrolysis,” the CCC says. “If all hydrogen in our scenarios were produced via electrolysis this would increase electricity generation by over 305 TWh.”

On the fossil-gas SMR side, the CCC assumes methane reformation is 80% efficient and that CCS can capture 95% of process carbon dioxide. But it says these estimates “should be considered upper bounds”. They do seem very high. The likely net carbon saving for the proposed Leeds H21 SMR/CCS project has been put at 59% compared to normal gas heating. So P2G still looks worth backing, not least as it avoids curtailment, with some claiming that it will be competitive by 2035.

Renewables to the fore

Although the CCC is cautious on bioenergy, with its estimates of global bioenergy supply potential being “notably lower than assumed in many of the scenarios assessed by the IPCC”, renewables are otherwise pushed hard but, the committee claims, not unrealistically: “Our scenarios are based on existing technologies and make conservative assumptions around their development and take-up of low-carbon behaviours. If mass roll-out of currently niche technologies leads to rapid cost reductions (e.g. as witnessed globally for batteries and solar panels and in Europe for offshore wind), the scenarios will be significantly easier to deliver.”

Overall, the CCC says “while the policy challenge in delivering these scenarios is undeniable, there is good reason to believe that the range of options could be wider and/or cheaper than we have assumed”. For example, it sees nuclear costs falling by 28% by 2050 and it also seems to see nuclear possibly playing a role in grid-balancing. Presumably the CCC is thinking of future small modular reactors, some of which are claimed will be more flexible than the existing, or planned, large plants. That seems some way off.

However, on this and some of the other technology options, the CCC adopts a belt and braces approach: “if the speculative options to reduce UK emissions do not develop sufficiently, or if there is a shortfall in delivery of the other elements of the scenarios, then international carbon units (i.e. credits or offsets) could provide contingency”. For example, it suggests that the UK “could support a net-zero target for aviation, requiring that all emissions are offset by removals”, assuming, presumably, they can’t be cut significantly in other ways, technically or by reducing demand. The latter option, and the prospect that flying will cost more, may be one of the less popular aspects of the plan. However, the CCC analysis also provides ammunition for those who argue that there will be no need for, or indeed room for, nuclear in this future system.

1 in 5 Cars Need to Be Electric by 2030: What Will it Take?

Last month, GM President Mark Reuss wrote an op-ed titled, “Electric cars won’t go mainstream until we fix these problems.” Mark’s article summarizes the top reasons why EVs haven’t yet achieved widespread adoption: EVs struggle to compete with gasoline vehicles on cost and range, and there is not enough public EV charging infrastructure. Mark predicts that EVs with more efficient batteries will achieve cost parity with the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle within a decade, “maybe sooner,” and that widespread EV adoption will then be possible.

A decade ago, this would have been an exciting pronouncement. And the business-as-usual timeline of patiently waiting for consumer demand to grow, while battery efficiency and cost reductions are made, and more abundant EV charging infrastructure is put in place, would have been viewed by many as a pragmatic investment approach. But popular support is growing around the overwhelming scientific consensus that we’re in a climate scenario now that won’t wait for business as usualAnd as this consensus gains more and more traction, all eyes will be on the light-duty vehicle sector.

Transportation is the single largest carbon-emitting sector in the United States, responsible for 29 percent of all emissions. And as electricity generation continues to rapidly transition to cleaner, renewable energy sources, transportation’s share of emissions is only growing. Within the transportation sector, light-duty vehicles in the United States account for 59 percent of emissions, 23 percent come from medium and heavy-duty trucks, and the majority of the remaining transportation emissions come from planes, ships, rail, buses, and motorcycles. Bottom line, there’s virtually no way to meet carbon reduction goals without a significant contribution from the light-duty vehicle sector.


Want an electric vehicle? Here’s why it can be so hard to get one

2020 set to be year of the electric car, say industry analyst

Mini, Vauxhall Corsa and Fiat 5oo will join rapidly expanding European EV market

 An electric Mini. New EU rules will penalise carmakers for excessive CO2 emissions. Photograph: Sascha Steinbach/EPA

Europe’s carmakers are gearing up to make 2020 the year of the electric car, according to automotive analysts, with a wave of new models launching as the world’s biggest manufacturers scramble to lower the carbon dioxide emissions of their products.

Previous electric models have mostly been targeted at niche markets, but 2020 will see the launch of flagship electric models with familiar names, such as the Mini, the Vauxhall Corsa and the Fiat 500.

The number of electric vehicle (EV) models available to European buyers will jump from fewer than 100 to 175 by the end of 2020, according to data firm IHS Markit. By 2025 there will be more than 330, based on an analysis of company announcements.

The new supply will cater to a rapidly expanding market as demand for petrol-powered vehicles gradually recedes. UK EV sales will rise from 3.4% of all vehicles sold in 2019 to 5.5% in 2020 – or from 80,000 this year to 131,000 in 2020 – according to forecasts from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. By 2026 electric vehicle sales will account for a fifth of sales in the UK, the forecasts show. Similar predictions from LMC Automotive suggest 540,000 electric cars will be sold across the EU in 2020, up from 319,000 over the course of 2019.

New European Union rules come into force on 1 January that will heavily penalise carmakers if average carbon dioxide emissions from the cars they sell rise above 95g per kilometre. If carmakers exceed that limit, they will have to pay a fine of €95 (£79) for every gram over the target, multiplied by the total number of cars they sell.

The excess emissions bill would have been £28.6bn on 2018 sales figures, according to analysis by the automotive consultancy Jato Dynamics, illustrating the extent of the change required by carmakers over a short period of time. Jato analyst Felipe Muñoz said there will still be large fines, as companies keep selling profitable internal combustion engine cars and struggle to bring down EV prices to parity with their fossil-fuel peers.

“It is very difficult for carmakers to change manufacturing infrastructure in such a short period of time,” Muñoz said.

However, some analysts take a more sceptical view of the industry that spawned the Dieselgate scandal, in which Volkswagen and Daimler were shown to have deliberately cheated emissions regulations. Carmakers successfully lobbied for a rule that means cars emitting less than 50g of carbon dioxide per kilometre are eligible for so-called super-credits, a controversial policy which means that every electric vehicle sold counts as two cars. That makes it easier for carmakers to meet their targets, even if average emissions from their cars are actually higher than the rules stipulate.

“A lot of action has been postponed until [the carmakers] need to,” said Julia Poliscanova, the clean vehicles director at the campaign group Transport & Environment. “What they’re planning to produce is more or less what they need to hit their COtargets.”

Multiple new electric car models will go on sale just in time to qualify for EU regulations. In November the first of Volkswagen’s ID.3 cars rolled off a new electric production line in Zwickau, eastern Germany, that will be able to produce 330,000 vehicles a year by 2021. The first of BMW’s Mini Electric models, made in Oxford, will arrive in showrooms in March. Vauxhall, owned by France’s PSA Group, will start production of its Corsa-e in January, with sales to begin in March.

Sales of pure electric vehicles will still be dwarfed by those of cars with conventional fossil-fuel engines, as well as hybrids that use both battery and internal combustion power. However, the electric vehicle surge is likely to contribute to significant price reductions, as carmakers compete for buyers beyond the early adopters willing to pay a premium.

Consultants at Deloitte estimate the market will reach a tipping point in 2022, when the cost of ownership of an electric car is on par with its internal combustion engine counterparts. Separate research by the International Council on Clean Transportation suggested this was already the case in February in five European countries, including the UK.

In the UK, some drivers anxious about the short range of electric vehicles on a single charge will be put off from buying them until the development of charging infrastructure spreads across the country. However, scandals such as Dieselgate have made investors “acutely aware” of the need to increase electric sales and comply with emissions regulations, according to Arlene Ewing, a director at wealth manager Brewin Dolphin.

“Brand is all to a carmaker and failure to meet the deadline may adversely affect their brand, reputation and, ultimately, sales,” she said. “We have seen this before. Consumers tend to be brand loyal.”

Rising demand from consumers has also filtered through to used electric cars: listings website CarGurus found that second-hand prices of some models had risen during 2019. Tom Leathes, the chief executive of rival car sales platform Motorway, said the market was growing “extremely fast”, despite the complications of selling cars that include separately leased batteries.

“We expect this segment to grow year on year for at least another 10 years as electric’s share of the new car market continues to grow exponentially,” Leathes said.

Five electric cars to watch out for in 2020

Volkswagen ID.3
Price: under £26,000, range: 205 miles, due in early 2020

The “third-generation” mass-market vehicle from the world’s largest carmaker will be swiftly followed by the ID.4 SUV, on the same electric vehicles platform, and production will be carbon neutral, VW claims.

Vauxhall Corsa-e
Price: £26,490, range: 209 miles, due in April 2020

Along with the Mini, the Corsa is one of the first of the UK’s perennial bestsellers to get an electric makeover. It shares its core parts with Peugeot’s e-208, another of the PSA Group’s key superminis.

Tesla Model Y
Price: about £30,300, range: 230 miles, production to start in summer 2020

The latest model from the company that kicked off the electric car race will be the Model Y, a compact SUV that can fit seven people. The Model Y will eventually be built on the same site as a recently announced Tesla battery plant in Berlin.

Ford Mustang Mach-E
Price: about £35,000, range: 370 miles, expected late 2020

The Mustang Mach-E is aimed at the booming family-friendly SUV market. The car will be the first all-electric vehicle from the US carmaker, which has been slow to develop new sources of power.

Fiat 500 Electric
Price: about £28,000, range: tba, due in late 2020

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has been an emissions laggard because of its gas-guzzling Jeep. The company’s first fully electric car, the redesigned 500 Electric, will be made in its Mirafiori factory near Turin, with a right-hand drive version launched late in the year.