Described by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) chief executive Chris Stark as the “first ever detailed route map for a fully decarbonised nation”, the government advisers’ 1,000-page report finds that the cost of net zero will be less than 1% of UK gross domestic product over the next three decades — an assessment far cheaper than previous analyses.
The report’s central expectations for what should be achieved by 2035 for the UK to reach net zero by 2050 are based on a “balanced pathway”, which makes moderate assumptions on behavioural change and innovation.
Under this middle-ground scenario, the UK’s low-carbon share in electricity supply increases from 50% now — split roughly equally beteen renewables and nuclear — to 100% by 2035, cutting UK emissions by 18% compared to its1990 baseline.
New demands from transport, buildings and industry (moderated by improving energy efficiency) mean electricity demand rises 50% to 2035, before doubling or even trebling by 2050. The CCC expects to see the UK decarbonise power generation by 2045, mostly via the expansion of offshore wind farms by reaching the government’s goal of 40GW in 2030, on a path to 65-125GW by 2050.
To achieve this, it wants to see continued investments in renewables through the contracts for difference (CfD) subsidy system, coordinated onshore-offshore connections and for the government to “greatly strengthen” the power grid.
Last month, the government announced that fixed-bottom offshore wind will, for the first time, have its own pot to bid for in next year’s CfD auction.
According to the CCC’s balanced pathway scenario, it expects CfD auction prices to be levied at £43/MWh (€47/MWh) in 2030 and £40/MWh in 2050.
As part of the need for a "just transition", the report states that there is “a significant opportunity for the UK to export engineering expertise, components, and services to the rapidly growing EU and global market for offshore wind”.
Growing share for wind and solar
If its recommendations are followed through, it believes that by 2035, wind and solar will provide 75-90% of the UK's electricity, bringing down emissions further. Emissions in 2019 are thought to have been about 45% lower than 1990 and 3.6% lower than in 2018, largely due to the dwindling use of coal power in the country and the uptake of renewables.
However, further cuts will require much more effort and £50 billion a year in investment: “The 2020s are the crucial decade... with effective action starting now, by 2030 the UK will be firmly on track to net zero,” says the report. According to the CCC, the balanced pathway saves £10 billion in operational costs in 2050 compared to the high-carbon baseline.
Accepting the 78% target would imply reducing emissions by ten percentage points, or about 100,000 tonnes of CO2 over five years or so. This is due to the 68% goal for 2030 that was endorsed by the UK prime minister last week in an effort to promote similar "nationally determined contributions" (NDCS) under the Paris Agreement ahead of a climate summit this Saturday (12 December).
Elsewhere in the report, the CCC states that increased offshore wind will help produce green hydrogen. Due to the “relatively low costs” of renewables and offshore wind, the CCC says it is “attractive to err on the side of ‘over-building’ renewable capacity relative to electricity demands''. The report says that “some of this generation that would otherwise be curtailed is then used to produce hydrogen, providing extra value from the renewable capacity”.
The UK’s hydrogen strategy, due in the spring, will need to outline policies, regulations and incentives to develop its role over the coming decade. The CCC expects the country to expand low-carbon hydrogen production to 90TWh per year by 2035, which will be “vital in providing flexibility to deal with intermittency” from renewables, says the report.
The CCC has asked the government to enshrine in law the sixth carbon budget by the end of June 2021.