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Net zero is about more than renewables – all sectors must step up

02 October 2023

Engineers, industries, and society need to look beyond energy to reach net zero, writes Ana Armada Bras.

Net zero is about more than renewables – all sectors must step up
Efforts are needed to decarbonise surface transport. Image credit: Shutterstock

The UK needs to look more widely than just energy to reach net zero – especially regarding the different infrastructure sectors.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to net zero by 2050. But his revised plans scale back net zero aspirations for infrastructure, namely for surface transport, industry, and buildings.

The government now plans to:

  • delay the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by five years, to 2035
  • delay the ban on installing oil and gas boilers for off-gas-grid homes to 2035 (instead of phasing them out from 2026)
  • scrap policies to force landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of their properties

These are missed opportunities to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. Immediate and ambitious actions are needed to meet the UK's net zero target.

This is an opportunity for the UK

June 2023 marked the hottest June in the UK since 1884. July saw record-breaking heatwaves across Europe, China, and the US.

These extreme weather events underscore the urgency for decisive climate action.

The need for major interventions is creating a global race to the top for industries of the future. This is an opportunity for the UK.

But the Climate Change Committee (CCC) already lacks confidence in the UK's ability to achieve its 2030 target, which is crucial for the country’s international reputation.

While other nations have implemented measures to combat rising energy costs – such as the EU’s Green Deal Industrial Plan and the US Inflation Reduction Act – the UK has yet to take similar steps to reduce demand and ramp up renewables.

Emissions must fall much faster

Things aren't good when looking beyond 2030 to the sixth carbon budget, which covers the period from 2033 to 2037.

The rate of emissions reduction over the past eight years was 2.9% per year. That rate needs to almost double in the next seven years.

The UK’s international commitment for 2030 is to reduce emissions by 68% compared to 1990 levels. This requires an ambitious policy response.

What are the priority areas for infrastructure?

To meet net zero, engineers, industries, and society need to broaden their outlook, especially when it comes to different infrastructure sectors.

Namely, electricity, industry, surface transport, buildings, agriculture, waste, and land use.

The CCC’s 2023 progress report looks closely into these sectors’ progress on reducing emissions. Apart from electricity – largely due to the impact of closing coal-fired power stations – all need to speed up.

The UK needs to double the rate of decarbonisation in industry and buildings. Energy efficiency measures for households need scaling up, not rolling back.

The UK also needs to quadruple the rate of decarbonisation in surface transport. The government must support the public in travelling more sustainably.

Clarity, consistency, and communication

Agriculture, land, and waste have seen no recent progress on average annual emissions reduction. These sectors need a long-term funding strategy.

So too do industries including hydrogen, biomass, and carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS). The UK government needs to provide long-term clarity for these sectors.

Bio-based and recycled materials industries can create new economic opportunities, fostering innovation and job growth. They can also contribute to greenhouse gas reduction, biodiversity, and infrastructure resilience.

But the planning system must support the rollout of this infrastructure. Building the required electricity grid, hydrogen production, and CCUS facilities won’t be quick.

We also need trained people to deliver these changes. The UK needs to address skill gaps and labour shortages in these sectors.

Finally, the government needs to empower the public to contribute to net zero by communicating the most impactful ways to reduce emissions.

Mitigation isn’t enough – we must also adapt

Climate change is already here. Action to reduce emissions is necessary, but it isn’t enough.

For too long, we’ve been building homes and infrastructure that will need to be retrofitted. The government needs to incentivise lower-carbon choices and support new supply chains.

Alongside action to reduce carbon, we need to see action to adapt to climate change. Without it, we’ll remain vulnerable to extremes that are fast becoming the new normal.

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  • Dr Ana Armada Bras, associate professor at Liverpool John Moores University