Net Zero: The Terrifying Cost

Summary

Carbon neutrality, or having a net zero carbon footprint, refers to achieving net zero carbon dioxide emissions by balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal (often through carbon offsetting) or simply eliminating carbon emissions altogether (the transition to the “post-carbon economy”). In this post I argue that for a successful response to climate change, reality must take precedence over PR. Hitting these goals may be impossible for an economy based on mass consumption.

Net zero by 2050

If we remember Theresa May at all it will be for mucking up Brexit. Little wonder that when she announced what was leaving office, she devoted her last week’s dreaming up new policies. She hoped that this would give us something else for us to remember her by. She announced that her legacy list of policies would include an amendment to the Climate Change Act 2008. This would need the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Any emissions after that date would have to be offset by removing a corresponding amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. For example, by planting trees. The amendment will raise the bar from the current target of an 80% cut. It will also make Britain the first country to set a long-term climate target that is legally binding.

Climate change

Net ZeroThis announcement came not a moment too soon. Extreme weather is usually seen as a product of climate change. But it is also becoming a significant driver of the crisis, a new report suggests. In its annual review of global energy trends, BP calculates that global demand for energy grew by 2.9% last year. And this is the biggest rise since 2010. You only have to look at the recent extreme UK weather.

The New York Times said:

In the United States and other countries more accustomed to it, such heat might scarcely register. But essential infrastructure in those climates, from schools to public transportation to private homes, has been designed to deal with it, and people’s bodies are more acclimated to it.

Moreover:

For generations, homes in Britain were designed to retain heat, to make cold winters bearable. Keeping them cool in the typically mild summers was an afterthought if it was a thought at all.

Indeed:

Without human-caused climate change temperatures of 40°C in the UK would have been extremely unlikely

In fact:

we have entered uncharted territory, with frequent extreme temperatures over prolonged periods.

The impact of these extreme heatwaves on people is deadly. “I’ve looked at the heatwaves in the past 10 years and we have had about 2,000 extra deaths each year in England,” said Dr Eunice Lo at the University of Bristol.

The Deadly Impact

The impact of these extreme heatwaves on people is deadly:

Heatwaves during the height of summer pose a substantial risk to human health and are potentially lethal. This risk is aggravated by climate change, but also by other factors such as an ageing population, urbanisation, changing social structures, and levels of preparedness.

And:

We’ve got a very severe heatwave at the moment and all the evidence that we have is that they’re going to get worse,” said Prof Nigel Arnell at the University of Reading.

Carbon Emissions

A significant factor in this was the number of much colder and hotter days than normal. This led to a greater use of air conditioners, fans, and heaters. As a result of this extra energy usage, carbon emissions rose by 2%. This was a faster rise than in any year since 2011. It is the carbon equivalent of having four hundred million more cars on the roads. Spencer Dale, the company’s chief economist, warned of a worrying vicious cycle:

  • increasing levels of carbon emissions leading to more extreme weather patterns,
  • which in turn trigger stronger growth in energy and carbon emissions.

While the report acknowledges the extraordinary growth in renewable energy (up 14.5% last year) it argues that to tackle climate change we must find ways of making fossil fuels less damaging. The oil and gas multinational has called for countries to:

  • switch from coal-generated power to gas (which produces fewer emissions), and
  • for more government investment in carbon capture technology. This would cut the emissions from the flues of power plants before they reach the air.

The cleaning of the British economy

Net ZeroWe can trace the path towards net zero. The cleaning of the British economy started with the introduction of the EUs landmark 2007 climate targets. These boosted renewables while reducing energy consumption and the production of greenhouse gases. Their impact has been dramatic:

  • a decade ago, 80% of UK electricity came from fossil fuels;
  • now around half comes from low-carbon sources (renewables and nuclear), and
  • UK demand for electricity is falling.

The Problem With Net Zero

The problem with trying to move to net zero is that no one is quite sure how well do it. There’s no consensus on a way forward. Even if the technical challenges are overcome, it would mean a host of green taxes and other compromises, sacrifices and lifestyle changes. Is the British public ready for:

  • more nuclear power stations,
  • more expensive flights,
  • higher energy prices, and
  • less money for the NHS?

That is what hitting net zero involves.

The UKs Contribution

The UK contributes just 1% of global emissions. The UK government seems to think that if we take the lead in net zero, the rest of the world will gasp in admiration and follow suit. It won’t. There’s no way China, India and the US will give up cheap carbon. As it is, we’re only able to lower our own emissions because we outsource so much manufacturing abroad. This is where labour is cheap and items are usually produced with electricity supplied through coal.

For an accurate figure of Britain’s emissions, we should include the consumption of goods produced overseas. As our consumption has increased enormously over the past 30 years, this carbon addition will be large. It is a nonsense for rich countries, therefore, to pretend they are cutting carbon emissions in a drive to net zero. A British child during their lifetime may produce at least two hundred times more carbon than a poor African child. And it is the poor child who will suffer first from climate change. However, for a successful response to climate change, reality must take precedence over PR. Hitting these goals may be impossible for an economy based on mass consumption.

In other words: we can’t cheat nature.

Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

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