By Irina Slav
The net-zero emissions goal of many governments has more or less become part of everyday life. We’ve all heard about these plans, and we may remember a few details. Still, life goes on. Now, a report from a UK research group is taking things a lot further: it has called for the country to aim for not net, but absolute zero in emissions by 2050. UK FIRES, a research program involving scientists from several reputable universities and businesses from resource-intensive sectors, says that net-zero is not enough. What’s more, waiting for breakthrough technologies to enable this net-zero scenario is not good enough.
According to a new report, today’s technology is sufficient for achieving absolute zero by 2050. At a cost, of course.
The plan that the authors of the report outline starts with moving to a 100-percent reliance on electricity as a source of energy. That’s hardly surprising —most net-zero plans involve a version of this heightened reliance. Naturally, critics would be quick to point out that a complete reliance on one form of energy may not be particularly smart, for which there is more than enough evidence from the fossil fuel era. Still, one of the tenets of the absolute-zero plan is an economy 100 percent powered by electricity generated by renewable sources.
The authors recognize this shift to 100 percent renewable electricity will require a significant boost in generation capacity and storage. Both of these are potentially challenging endeavors for a number of reasons. Challenges include—but are not limited to—cost and land availability. But unlike other plans for emission reduction, the FIRES plan does not factor in growing energy demand. On the contrary, the report prescribes that the UK must reduce its energy consumption—and reduce it substantially—in order for the absolute zero plan to work.
“We need to switch to using electricity as our only form of energy and if we continue today’s impressive rates of growth in non-emitting generation, we’ll only have to cut our use of energy to 60% of today’s levels,” the authors wrote. “We can achieve this with incremental changes to the way we use energy: we can drive smaller cars and take the train when possible, use efficient electric heat-pumps to keep warm and buy buildings, vehicles and equipment that are better designed and last much longer.”
Making people buy certain products and not others would be difficult, but the UK government has already signaled it was ready to remove the option of choice to hit its climate targets: Downing Street said last year it would ban sales of gasoline and diesel cars from 2030. This has already caused disgruntlement among some Britons, but they still have ten years to embrace the change.
They will also have time to get used to the idea of beef and lamb disappearing from supermarkets because, according to the authors of the report, eating ruminants contributes unacceptably high levels of emissions to the global total.
But that’s just the beginning.
The FIRES report identifies air and maritime transport as major contributors to our species’ carbon footprint. Therefore, these must be phased out completely, the authors say, by 2050. What will replace them? Well, electric trains would be one replacement for air travel across Europe. They would not, however, be able to replace container ships carrying goods from and to Asia, for example. The authors admit there is no replacement for international shipping, and there won’t be for quite a while yet. At the same time, the UK imports half the food it consumes.
International shipping is just one sticking point in the FIRES plan. Another is cement. Cement production is a highly polluting industry, but we can’t build safely without cement. The authors of the report suggest alternative construction technologies but note that completely phasing out cement will be a challenge.
It will not be the only one in view of the report’s recommendations. One of these concerns is making equipment, clothing, and durable goods even more durable to reduce energy consumption associated with the making of new ones. That might not sit well with the companies producing these goods and equipment, which make money from making their products last shorter rather than longer. It may not be the fairest of all business models, but it has been employed for decades.
All in all, the report’s main message to both businesses and individuals is: consume less energy. It is an admirable message, by all means. However, the road that the authors suggest to this reduced consumption is unstable.
It involves the demise of industries that employ tens of millions of people who will not all be able to retrain for solar panel or wind turbine installation. It also involves some major changes to people’s behaviors. While far from impossible, these changes are contingent on the goodwill of enough people—or on several successive governments’ willingness to prescribe behaviors through bans. That might be even less smart than a 100-percent reliance on electricity for our energy needs.