Relying on breakthrough technologies to achieve zero emissions by 2050 is risky and delays action. Instead, with today’s technologies, we can meet the target for almost all activities, but we have no substitutes for cement, shipping, flying, lamb or beef.
Businesses and the public across the UK want to act to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, in line with science and the UK’s updated Climate Change Act, but exaggerated claims about the speed at which new technologies can be introduced are holding back progress, according to a new report (Absolute Zero) published by the UK FIRES research programme. The report, launched ahead of this year’s COP climate change meeting, aims to shift the focus towards achievable implementation now, and to provide a clear guide to prioritise the actions that can be taken today.
The UK can anticipate having four times as much emissions-free electricity in 2050 as today, if today’s impressive rates of expansion continue. This is enough to supply 60% of today’s energy-using activities, if they are electrified with today’s technologies. To close the gap, we can either make incremental changes to the technologies (for example buying smaller cars rather than SUVs) or change the way we use them (for example by using more of the seats in fewer cars, or taking the train instead of the car).
Four activities for which no electrified option is available or which cause emissions regardless of how they’re powered are more difficult, and we need to start a comprehensive public conversation about how to respond to them. Of these, flying and eating ruminant meat (beef and lamb) can be reduced significantly by different personal choices – with many people already acting in these areas.
However, the report reveals two important areas for which we currently have no emissions-free alternatives: shipping and cement. Although some nuclear warships exist, there are no electric freight ships, yet the UK imports half of all its food, so zero emissions will require us to change how we source and transport our food and other imported goods. But the greatest challenge is cement: the chemistry of making cement, or any of its known alternatives, leads to unavoidable emissions, but without cement we don’t know how to make new buildings or install new renewables.
This year’s school strikers and Extinction Rebellion protestors have been extremely effective in raising public concern about climate change, but so far the focus has been to get the issues on the agenda rather than on the solutions. By recognising that new technologies won’t arrive soon enough to take the problem away, the report details the most important direct changes we can all make now in order to reduce emissions rapidly and at meaningful scale – for example:
- Stop flying, and take the train not the car when possible.
- Share rides to use more of the seats in the car now and buy a smaller electric car next time.
- Cut out beef and lamb and reduce use of processed frozen meals.
- Only heat rooms where people are sitting, and replace the boiler with a heat pump next time.
- Lobby local councils and public clients to allow only long-lasting buildings without overdesign.
These changes are the only means by which we can meet our zero emissions target in the short term. After 2050, breakthrough technologies may expand the energy supply and re-introduce cement production or even flying. But new technologies take decades to achieve significant market penetration, as they are scaled up and the risks, costs and public acceptance builds. We don’t have time to wait, so instead the report proposes a delivery authority modelled on the one that delivered the London Olympics.
Shifting the focus away from carbon capture and storage or hydrogen technologies, which may become significant after 2050, but are a distraction in the short-term, the UK could meet its climate ambitions with incremental changes in today’s technologies. By focusing on technologies that we can deploy at scale within 30 years, Absolute Zero reveals a pathway for an industrial renaissance in the UK delivering the materials, buildings, equipment and services compatible with zero emissions.
Fellow of St Catharine's, Professor Julian Allwood (2018), Director of UK FIRES, Professor of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Cambridge and lead author of Absolute Zero, said:
“By being frank about what’s technically possible in the time available, Absolute Zero presents a tremendously positive vision for reaching zero emissions. Today’s technologies, with minor changes, can sustain our developed lifestyles. The change can be delivered rapidly provided we engage everyone in the process, so that positive steps forwards lead to rapid reinforcement.
“Absolute Zero sets out a rich opportunity for UK industry to leap ahead of the emitting activities of the past and develop the materials, goods and systems compatible with zero emissions. We know that all other economies will develop similar targets, as the cost of inaction is infinitely high, so the earlier we can act on our targets the greater our advantage.
“For the vast number of individuals who support the goals of this year’s school strikers and social protestors, and themselves want to act on climate, Absolute Zero sets out the agenda. A small number of focused changes in today’s lifestyles will both cut emissions significantly, and will support parallel steps in business and government.”
Sam Turner, Chief Technical Officer of the UK’s High Value Manufacturing Catapult and Chair of the “Living Lab” of subscribing industrial partners in UK FIRES, said: “Absolute Zero is long overdue as we have been waiting for such a clear and evidence-based analysis of what the UK’s climate change targets really mean. The report provides an invaluable vector for manufacturing in the UK. Clarity about the products and materials compatible with zero emissions gives UK companies a trajectory, to move from the high emitting world of the past, into a thriving future with zero emissions.”
Peter Schmitz, Head of Macro & Commodity Research at Anglo American, a member of the UK FIRES Living Lab said “for a mining company committed to being at the forefront of the move to an environmentally responsible future, Absolute Zero, is both challenging and exciting. The corporate transformation required to be compatible with this report’s uncompromising approach is daunting, but now we have a basis for discussion along our supply chain about how we embrace this change and help to deliver a thriving zero emissions future.
Laura Sandys, Policy Champion for UK FIRES said “UK productivity is falling behind in the industries of the past. The opportunity of pursuing zero emissions with vigour is to trigger growth in the industries of the future, which we know will grow as the UK’s leadership on emissions regulation is emulated round the world.
Teppo Felin, Professor of Corporate Strategy at the Said Business School at the University of Oxford, and a co-investigator of the UK FIRES Programme said, “When we began the journey to this report, I feared that it was so radical that I couldn’t imagine sharing it with the students and executives I teach in developing strategies for future corporate success. As we have carefully worked through different disciplines and considerations to bring it together, I’ve come to recognise just how many short-term opportunities are created by embracing the challenge of zero emissions and the radical possibilities this enables for creating new innovations and radical technologies. I look forward to sharing this with my classes, and even with my daughters who have been campaigning for zero emissions this year
The UK FIRES report, Absolute Zero, can be downloaded from here.
The UK FIRES programme website is here.
The Absolute Zero report was launched on 29th November 2019, at the Royal Geographical Society, ahead of the “RGS: COP25 climate talks’.
UK FIRES is a programme grant with £5m support from EPSRC (the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of UKRI) and a subscribing consortium of industrial partners who meet as a “Living Lab” to pose strategic challenges to the academic investigators, receive and apply their analysis, and reflect on its value.
UK FIRES is directed by Professor Julian Allwood FREng, Professor of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Cambridge. The other academics in the programme, and co-authors of the report, are:
Professor Ian Horrocks FRS, Department of Computer Science, Oxford
Professor Tim Ibell, FREng, Department of Civil Engineering, Bath
Professor Adam Clare, Department of Manufacturing Engineering, Nottingham
Professor Hamish Low, Faculty of Economics, Oxford
Professor Jianguo Lin FREng, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Imperial College
Dr Jonathan Cullen, Department of Engineering, Cambridge
Professor Michael Ward, Technical Director of the AFRC, Strathclyde
Dr Richard Lupton, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Bath
Professor Teppo Felin, Said Business School, Oxford