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Chart of the week: The path to net zero

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 04 Nov 2021

All eyes have been on COP26 as the world’s leaders seek to set a course to eliminating carbon emissions over the next quarter of a century or so. Our chart highlights what it will take for the UK to do its part of delivering net zero by 2050.
A chart

The Breakthrough Agenda agreed at COP26 by countries representing more than 70% of the world economy will be key, by making clean technologies the most affordable, accessible and attractive choice for all globally in each of the most polluting sectors. This involves ensuring that clean power, zero emission vehicles, near-zero emission steel, green hydrogen and climate-resilient sustainable agriculture are in place by 2030 so that countries including the UK can deliver on their ambitious plans to eliminate greenhouse emissions from their economies.

For the UK, the plan is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the 520m tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emitted in 2019 to between 75m and 81m in 2050, with a combination of natural and technological solutions to remove an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere to bring net emissions down to zero. This is based on the scenarios set out in the UK’s Net Zero Strategy published on 19 October 2021, which starts from 146m tCO2e of emissions from power and heat, 167m tCO2e from transport and 207 tCO2e from industry, agriculture & waste.

The different steps that will be needed to achieve this goal start with decarbonising power generation and heating, going from 146m to 3m tCO2e in 2050. The UK has already made substantial progress in installing renewable generation and appears on track to achieve the 57 MtCO2e further reduction to almost entirely remove fossil fuels from electricity. Challenging as that will be, it will be even more difficult to replace natural gas as the principal source of heating for the majority of buildings across the UK in order to find a further 86m tCO2e of reduction. 

Eliminating 117m out of 122m tCO2e of emissions from domestic transport will mainly be accomplished by replacing petrol and diesel vehicles with electric, not only requiring affordable car technology but an entire new infrastructure of charging points. There is less optimism for international travel, where the ambition is to take out 24m of the 45m tCO2e emitted in 2019 in the ‘high innovation’ scenario presented in the chart and only 10m tCO2e in the other two scenarios (which assume greater reductions in other areas to arrive at a similar end point).

Industry, agriculture, and waste have even more to do, with businesses including steel producers, manufacturers and the fuel supply chain needing to decarbonise to remove 86m tCO2e out of 104m tCO2e. Agriculture and land use will need to take out 42m of 63m tCO2e of emissions, while emissions from waste and fluorinated greenhouse gases (F-gases) will need to come down by 27m from 40m to 13m tCO2e.

The result will be a UK economy still emitting 81m tCO2e a year, comprising 3m from power and heat, 26m from transport and 52m from industry, agriculture, and waste. Net zero will be achieved by removing an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere, partially through natural means but in practice through technological solutions that have yet to be developed.

There is a lot that all of us need to do to achieve net zero here in the UK. The positive news emerging from COP26 is that the rest of the world is also committed to doing so too – a global solution for a global climate emergency.

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