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What the 2050 zero carbon emissions target means for energy generation, transport and agriculture

The future looks brighter
The future looks brighter with zero emissions

The Government has set the UK an ambitious target of achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050. Hitting this target will require an enormous change in the way we live, work, grow our food and move about the next 30 years.

It’s going to cost money, and plenty of it. A figure of £1 trillion over the next three decades has been mooted. The payback, however, could be enormous. Not only will the green economy add to economic growth by creating jobs, but cleaner air brings considerable health benefits, reducing pressure on the NHS and social services.

The big question now is how we get there. Emma Pinchbeck of trade body Renewable UK says the biggest challenge will be the government’s willingness to provide funding for the initiative, particularly in areas such as agriculture, heavy industry, shipping and residential energy.

“We are not worried about cost of decarbonisation in the power generation sector," she says. "This came first and was relatively easy and has been a big success. The cost reduction in renewables has been utterly remarkable. What we are worried about what happens in the rest of the economy, like heat and transport, cars and planes, gas-fired boilers, freight and public transport. It’s really tricky."

While the government has taken action to phase out coal and promote offshore wind and solar, it has done little to address how to, for instance, shift households from gas-fired boilers to those powered by electricity.

Neither have there been tighter regulations on house builders or rules to cut agricultural emissions. "That will require the Government to regulate and invest,” Pinchbeck adds.

So what will individuals and businesses need to do to meet these new emissions targets? Here’s a summary of the mammoth job ahead, and what it means for both industry and consumers.

Energy generation

An extensive electrification of our energy usage, particularly for cars and domestic heating, will more than double demand for electricity. All of this additional power must come from low-carbon sources; only 50pc does today. Offshore wind generation alone will need to increase tenfold, meaning a further 7,500 turbines.

Hydrogen will need to be developed as a fuel, particularly for heavy industry and long-distance lorries and ships, and supply will need to match that of the UK’s existing fleet of gas-fired power stations. That all adds up to a fourfold increase in renewable energy generation to meet the 2050 targets.

Energy storage, such as huge battery farms, will be vital, not least to allow the grid to regulate supply and demand at peak times. Renewable UK expects to see nearly eight gigawatts of battery storage come on stream in the next five to 10 years - the equivalent to two nuclear power stations.

The government will also need to invest in carbon capture and storage, particularly for big industries. This will be crucial to meeting the 2050 targets, yet the technology has yet to get off the ground and the costs will be high in implementing it and creating the infrastructure to transport the carbon to where it will be stored.

Having said all this, it is worth noting that turning centralised energy supply into a carbon-zero industry is the easiest part of the 2050 challenge.  Offshore and onshore wind alone are already generating a quarter of the UK's electricity and costs have halved over the past two years alone. Solar power generates a tenth of the UK’s electricity most days. In addition there are two wave and tidal projects on stream in Scotland, albeit at a much earlier stage of development.

“We’re already there in some respects,” says Pinchbeck. "Industry is already backing these technologies and there has been a lot of investment.”

Transport

Industry

Transport is one of the biggest challenges to meeting emissions targets because the technology is lacking in some areas, such as aviation. Emissions from transport have increased by 6pc since 2013 and are now 4pc higher than in 1990.

Businesses will need to adopt a mix of hydrogen-fuelled transport for lorries and electrical-powered vehicles. Advances area already being made in electrical HGVs. 

In shipping, energy efficiency must improve and adopt alternative fuels such as hydrogen. There is talk about storing hydrogen offshore allowing ships to refuel without going into harbour.

Lorries will need either go electric or used hydrogen fuel cell technology

All surface transport, including vans and cars, will need to be electric or hydrogen-powered. This would require 3,500 rapid and ultra-rapid charging stations near motorways and 210,000 public chargers in towns and cities. There are just 21,000 public charging points today. A hydrogen-based switchover of HGVs will require 800 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2050, while electrification would require 90,000 depot-based charges for overnight electric charging.

Consumer

All buses, trains and passenger cars will need to be electric or hydrogen, with the associated charging infrastructure needed for charging.

People will have to walk more, cycle more, meaning more cycle paths and pedestrian-friendly routes.

We’ll be asked to fly less and will have no choice but to use offsetting to reduce aviation emissions to zero.

Residential

Industry

There will need to be much tighter regulations on newly built housing to meet stringent energy requirements. This could include compulsory systems such as ground source heat pumps, heat exchange systems and proper insulation.

Carbon 'positive' houses like this one (they put more energy into the grid than they take out) will be key to reducing emissions

Consumer

Less than 5pc of energy used for heating homes and buildings comes from low-carbon sources and 80pc is gas-fired. Accordingly, gas boilers will need to be phased out and be replaced by electric boilers.

Households will have to adopt new technologies such as solar power and heat pumps and install underfloor heating. Older homes will need to be retro-fitted with proper insulation and double glazing. Every light bulb will have to be LED and houses will need smart heating systems installed, with timers that can predict energy use patterns.

Agriculture

Industry

A fifth of our agricultural land must shift to alternative uses that support emissions reduction, such as planting trees and restoring peatland.

There will need to be improved breeding of livestock and an improved arable yields to release more land for re-forestation. The country will need 30,000 hectares planted a year to increase the woodland cover from 13pc to 17pc. Fewer than 10,000 hectares are planted a year today.

Consumers will have to cut down on eating beef and dairy products

Consumer

Households will need to slash their agriculture-related emissions by 75pc to meet the 2050 target by cutting the amount of meat they consume - particularly red meat. Lamb, beef and dairy are carbon-intensive animal products. By altering their diets alone, individuals can reduce their dietary carbon emission by 35pc.

Reducing food waste will also be crucial to cutting emissions. A big portion of agricultural land is devoted to production of food that ends up in landfill. Some 10 million tonnes of food is wasted each year, with 70pc of this binned within households. This equates to consumers spending 14pc of their weekly shop on food that gets thrown away.

Heavy Industry

This includes sectors such as steel, cement and fertiliser producers. Less than 5pc of industrial energy demand is currently met by low-carbon sources.

The Government hopes to slash carbon emissions here by improving efficiency and creating industrial clusters, which are industries located in one area that use carbon capture or other forms of technology to reduce emissions.

The cost to heavy industry will be high though, at £100 per tonne of CO2. "With currently no ability to pass this on in sales of our products, it is clear the costs of decarbonisation cannot be shouldered by the industry alone while remaining internationally competitive", warns Stephen Elliott, chairman of the Energy Intensive Users Group, which represents the industry.

How much will this cost consumers

Energy bills

It could already be cheaper for households to go green on their energy bills. The two cheapest tariffs on the market are "100pc renewable".

Analysis by Energyhelpline, the switching site, of 92 green tariffs and 160 non-green tariffs, found that going green is £12 cheaper than the alternative, costing the average household £1,112 a year. Mark Todd, from the site, pointed out that the non-green tariffs included variable tariffs, which are more likely to be expensive. He also said an offset tariff, which pays for the planting of trees and other environmentally-friendly additions, could cost about £100 extra.

The cheapest green tariffs on the market now are with Outfox the Market, costing £873 and £891. By contrast the cheapest non-green tariff is with Nabuh Energy costing £900. But the impact of the 2050 zero-emissions target on bills in the next 30 years is yet to be seen, says Victoria Arrington from Energyhelpline. While some people argue that bills will have to rise as suppliers invest to go green, others reckon carbon-free energy won't necessarily cost more.

 "Green energy does not have to be expensive – instead, on average, it is actually cheaper than brown energy," says Arrington. "Green tariffs can be surprisingly affordable.”

Boilers

The shift from traditional gas boilers to electric home heating could be the biggest change in the consumer energy market over the coming years, even bigger than electric vehicles, according to Duncan Barnes, of Deloitte, the consultants. That's because, unlike converting power plants to renewable energy, decarbonising our housing stock is much more complicated and there's still a lot of work to do. 

"Every single boiler in the UK’s 26 million homes will need to be replaced. This will take decades to complete. Government intervention to create incentives is absolutely necessary," says Simon Phelan, of boiler provider Hometree.

And consumers might have to pay almost £500 a year more to run an electric boiler than a gas counterpart. According to Greenmatch, the comparison site, a gas boiler typically costs £1,145 annually, while an electric boiler could cost about £1,680. 

Air travel

While government restrictions and taxes could push the cost of airline tickets up, it is already possible to offset your carbon emissions when you fly. Organisations will calculate how much it would cost to do this. Offsetting return flights to popular tourist destinations like the Algarve or Greece would cost £9 and £11 respectively, according to clevel.co.uk. A return trip to Australia would cost £83.