Navigating the Path to Net Zero: Responding to the UK Climate Change Committee's Consultation

Blog 22 January, 2024

Navigating the Path to Net Zero: Responding to the UK Climate Change Committee’s Consultation

John Barrett (University of Leeds) 

In the face of an escalating climate crisis, the United Kingdom has set an ambitious target of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. At the forefront of this endeavour is the Climate Change Committee (CCC), established under the Climate Change Act (2008) to provide independent advice to the UK Government. They are tasked with offering guidance on the options to reduce GHG emissions, ensuring a smooth transition to net zero. A pivotal component of the CCC’s role is the proposal of “Carbon Budgets,” delineating permissible GHG emissions over consecutive five-year periods.

This blog post delves into the response from the Energy Demand Research Centre (EDRC) to the CCC’s consultation on establishing total GHG emissions within the 7th Carbon Budget (2037 to 2042). This critical juncture represents a late stage in the UK’s climate journey, with the overarching goal of reaching net zero by 2050. The EDRC, specialising in energy demand research, places a spotlight on its core research area in addressing the challenges posed by the CCC’s proposed strategies. A couple of observations below.

1. All mitigation options must be consistently compared

In evaluating the CCC’s proposed approach, there is need to demonstrate that a fair and comprehensive comparison of all mitigation options will be undertaken. The concern arises from the perceived prioritisation of key technologies over measures aimed at altering social practices and behaviour. The proposed methodology suggests that “reasonable demand reduction options” will be considered only when “technology cannot be relied upon in the future.” An unbiased assessment should consider all options simultaneously, rejecting the notion that demand reduction should only be considered after evaluating technological solutions.

We would also challenge the assumption that technologies are “behaviour-free,” citing examples like the installation and use of heat pumps and electric cars, which necessitate changes in behaviour, perceptions, and practices for rapid deployment. We would support a more nuanced understanding of socio-technical systems, emphasising the interconnectedness of technology and societal changes in achieving the necessary transformations. The Positive Low Energy Futures project (Barrett et al, 2022), conducted by the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), underscores this interconnected approach by showing that the UK could halve its energy demand by 2050 through a combination of efficiency improvements in key technologies and broader societal changes.

The CCC’s proposed methodology introduces a higher hurdle for energy demand reduction strategies to be considered in the balanced pathway. The criteria for considering the feasibility of demand reduction measures include observed societal changes, historical data, behavioural and social science research, and wider societal impacts. Such conditions are unfairly stringent. When drawing a parallel to engineered carbon removal technologies, there are no large-scale working examples. Restricting demand side measures in ways not applied to technology pathways hinders the achievement of net-zero goals.

2. Economy-wide benefits must be included

In our response, we emphasise the critical importance of economic analyses in shaping future pathways and acknowledge the desirability of achieving a transition at a lower cost. However, we express concern over the methodology proposed by the CCC, which appears to focus more on the costs of the net-zero transition without concurrently considering the costs of inaction.

We believe that any assessment must not only evaluate the costs effectively but also incorporate a thorough analysis of the associated benefits. Recent evidence indicates that improvements in thermodynamic energy efficiency play a pivotal role in explaining unassigned economic growth. Studies of the UK suggest that thermodynamic energy efficiency contributes significantly to GDP increases, surpassing the gains from labour productivity over specific periods (Sakai et al, 2019). It is essential to consider the potential for increased electrification in mobility, homes, and industrial processes to further enhance thermodynamic energy efficiency, potentially leading to substantial economic growth.

Without a full assessment of both costs and benefits, the net-zero transition might erroneously appear more expensive and less desirable than maintaining the status quo. This, in turn, could perpetuate unwarranted narratives suggesting that the transition is financially unattainable when, in reality, the opposite holds true: the cost of not reaching net zero is far greater.

In addition, we highlight the challenge of monetising every cost and benefit, emphasising that there are numerous co-benefits, such as social cohesion, improved work-life balance, and a sense of worth, that defy straightforward monetisation. We advocate for a more comprehensive assessment that embraces both qualitative and quantitative approaches. We suggest that energy demand reduction approaches would be viewed more favourably within such a framework, as it allows for a holistic understanding of the multifaceted benefits associated with transitioning to a sustainable energy future.

Conclusion

The CCC is, rightly, seen as a trusted body providing independent and evidence-based advice. To maintain this important position, there is a need to provide an inclusive and unbiased assessment, incorporate consideration of all the economy-wide benefits, and ensure transparency in acknowledging political realities. It is our hope that the research being undertaken by EDRC can provide valuable evidence to help shape a comprehensive and effective strategy for the UK’s journey toward net zero. The consultation offers an opportunity for our work to shape how the 7th carbon budget and associated pathways assessments are ultimately determined.

Barrett, J., Pye, S., Betts-Davies, S. et al. Energy demand reduction options for meeting national zero-emission targets in the United Kingdom. Nat Energy 7, 726–735 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-022-01057-y. More information available at: www.low-energy.creds.ac.uk 

Sakai, M. et al. (2019) ‘Thermodynamic Efficiency Gains and their Role as a Key “Engine of Economic Growth”’, Energies , 12(110), pp. 1–14. doi: 10.3390/en12010110.