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Infrastructure blog

What does net-zero emissions by 2050 mean for the infrastructure sector? 

19 June 2019

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has recommended that the UK government puts in place a target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This means taking steps to reduce emissions in the first instance and then off-setting any that remain, in order to deliver the net effect of zero emissions.

What does net-zero emissions by 2050 mean for the infrastructure sector? 
Image credit: PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay

The target would supersede the Climate Change Act 2008 that legislated for a 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 based on 1990 levels. It's actually a more ambitious target than its predecessor and will require an even greater co-ordination of effort from government, industry and the public, if it's to be realised.

It's important to recognise that at this stage the target is merely a CCC recommendation. Nonetheless, in the event that Parliament does legislate for the target to become legally binding, it's prudent for different parts of the UK’s economy to start thinking about how it might be achieved. This includes the infrastructure sector.

Performance of the UK’s infrastructure sector on carbon emissions

The performance of the infrastructure sector on carbon emissions (CO₂), in the main, is nothing to write home about. Based on figures recently published by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, it's clear that the UK’s infrastructure networks (despite their importance to the UK’s economy) are major emitters of CO₂.

The transport sector accounted for 33% of all CO₂ emissions in 2018, with the majority of these coming from road transport.

In the same year, electricity from power stations contributed 18% of all CO₂ emissions, while the residential sector (mainly gas for heating) was also responsible for a similar proportion.

That’s 69% of all CO₂ emissions without considering other infrastructure sectors, like waste management.

Most worrying is that in the transport and residential sectors there have only been negligible reductions in CO₂ emissions levels since 1990 – 3% and 16% respectively. Clearly there's work to do if a net-zero emissions target for 2050 is to be achieved.

What changes are required across the UK’s infrastructure networks to help deliver a new 2050 target?

In the transport sector, but roads in particular, the National Infrastructure Commission has made a clear recommendation to the government on the need to prepare for 100% electric vehicle (EVs) sales by 2030.

This is an intervention that the ICE welcomes, and to ensure that it comes to fruition it's necessary that a pay-as-you-go model is introduced on the busiest roads in England in parallel.

This will ensure that an appropriate funding stream is in place to facilitate the network upgrades that will be required to support the large-scale deployment of EVs.

As the CO₂ emissions figures for the residential sector demonstrate, there's clearly a lot to do in order to decarbonise our heating networks. Developing a coherent and joined-up plan to enable this should be a national priority for UK energy policy when the next prime minister is in post.

In electricity generation, there's been more progress. Renewables capacity has tripled over the last five years, while electricity generation from fossil fuels has fallen by a third over the same period.

Yet there's still more to do. If the true potential of renewables is to be realised, then efforts must be stepped up to develop the energy storage technologies that will enable their intermittency to be managed. The government must maximise contracts for difference and other incentive mechanisms to develop commercial storage that's capable of doing this.

The role of the National Infrastructure Strategy

The government’s forthcoming National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) represents a landmark moment for the UK’s infrastructure sector. The strategy is an opportunity to set out the priorities on infrastructure for many years to come, alongside a clear plan for their delivery.

As support for a net-zero target for greenhouse gas emissions grows and its enactment in legislation* becomes more likely, the NIS also provides the perfect opportunity for the government to outline its ambitions for cleaning up the infrastructure sector. The ICE would urge the government to seize this opportunity.

*Since this blog was written legislation was passed on 27 June.

  • Ben Goodwin, lead policy manager at ICE