Professor Jovica V. Milanovic, of the University of Manchester, discusses the balances to be struck (and the trade-offs to be made) in the pursuit of net zero.
The term ‘net zero’ has been on the lips of many a climate expert, politician, or sustainability advocate for some time now, and occupied much of the agenda at COP26. Striving for such a goal will be crucial in minimising rises in global temperature in the decades to come, and ensuring our planet is safe for future generations to inhabit.
The discourse around net zero is often punctuated by grand gestures, heady promises, and bold statements about how we can and should reach it. It is hugely encouraging in many respects to see such commitment to a singular aim, but it’s also important that we take a step back and consider the ins and outs of what needs to be done to make net zero a reality.
The truth that we must face is that net zero will come at a substantial financial cost to governments, businesses, and public sector organisations. There will also be a significant burden for the general public to bear, whether through higher taxes, more expensive vehicles, or the inconvenience of having to change, to an extent, their ways of life.
There are many balances to be struck and trade-offs to be made in the pursuit of net zero, and it can only be reached if we all understand and are prepared for these.
Net zero: the principle
In order to illustrate the work that needs to be done, we should establish exactly what net zero means. In the broadest terms, net zero refers to when a business, country or the entire planet isn’t adding to the amount of greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere. This means reducing emissions as much as possible, while offsetting any remaining emissions and cutting down on practices such as deforestation.1
More than 130 countries around the world have pledged to reach net zero by 2050, with the movement given renewed impetus by discussions at COP26. Russia, meanwhile, has said it will achieve the goal by 2060, while India has stipulated a date of 2070. China has asserted that it will reach ‘carbon neutrality’ by 2060.
These promises have been met with optimism by some experts: Tim Lenton, head of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, described methane reduction targets outlined at COP26 as a “good start”. Ulka Kelkar, an economist heading the Indian climate programme for the World Resources Institute think tank, was effusive when describing India’s net-zero pledge, saying it was “much more than we were expecting to hear”.2
Net zero is clearly a great ideal to aim for in principle, but there are a multitude of requirements to be met for it to be truly realistic.
Making international collaboration work
Reaching net zero on a global scale means getting governments, businesses, and other institutions onto the same page. On a planet of close to eight billion people and with a plethora of different challenges facing each country, this is much easier said than done. For example, nations such as China rely much more heavily on fossil fuels, such as coal, to meet their vast energy demands, and will be reluctant to give up this abundant and locally available resource, even under pressure from the international community.
There is also the problem of governments making unrealistic or outlandish promises that they are either unable or unwilling to keep. For countries to collaborate effectively, it is crucial that they hold each other to account on the promises they make, and steer away from performative statements that do little to support the long-term net zero goal. It is a complex, labyrinthine challenge, but one to which we must all commit.
The everyday impact
Achieving net zero means spending money on the grandest of scales, in order to develop and implement climate-friendly technologies and bring them into the mainstream. While much of this financial outlay will rest with businesses and governments, it is inevitable that a large proportion of this, in one form or the other, will be passed down to the general public.
This can be seen in new schemes encouraging people to purchase electric vehicles or replace their gas boilers with heat pumps, both of which are prohibitively expensive for the vast majority even with existing government subsidies in place.
Net zero will also likely mean more expensive bills, food, goods, and travel, estimated by the National Infrastructure Commission to cost families up to £400 extra per year.3 If these rises are to be accepted, governments must work closely with citizens to gauge their opinion on the necessary changes to be made and ensure the benefits are clearly always articulated to them so that no one is left behind. Ambitious net-zero targets can only be achieved with widespread public support.
Renewable energy technologies have come a long way in recent decades. The UK’s progress in this area is strong evidence of this, with renewables accounting for 43% of the country’s domestic power generation in 2020, a contribution which has more than doubled since 2014.4
However, the fact remains that renewable sources still don’t offer the reliability that many non-renewable sources do. The potential of wind or solar power, for example, is blunted during prolonged periods of unfavourable weather. In contrast, a carbon-free yet non-renewable source such as nuclear offers a far higher capacity factor5, which suggests it should form an important pillar of global energy infrastructure in the years to come.
Other technologies designed to aid the shift to net zero are also some ways from maturity. Battery storage, a fairly mature, and hydrogen, a fairly new energy storage technology, have immense potential to offset the use of fossil fuel power generation and increase availability (and such ultimately efficiency) of weather dependent renewable power generation, such as wind and solar. They are though still facing some challenges both technological and related to application at the power system level. Electric cars are also rapidly growing in sophistication, but the charging infrastructure needed to make them fully viable still lags behind.6
Making the net zero dream a reality
With all of the above in mind, it is now important to establish exactly what else needs to be done by all stakeholders in order to fulfil their net zero promises.
The first element is the need to carry out massive recruitment drives to increase the number of people in climate-focused technical and social roles. Technology is the turbine that will drive the net-zero juggernaut for the decades to come, so governments, businesses and other interest groups need to do everything in their power to attract people with the requisite technical skills, such as IT, data analytics, cybersecurity, and engineering. Similarly, social science and public engagement experts are needed to help with understanding and acceptability of the necessity of transition by the society at large. These people also need to be rapidly brought up to speed with the unique challenges of the sector, and ensure they are incentivised to remain in net zero-focused roles.
Further, there is an urgent requirement to accelerate the rate at which low- and zero-carbon technology is developing. Recent breakthroughs in battery storage energy systems (BESS) and hydrogen are encouraging7 but this progress needs to be accelerated where possible. The aforementioned need to recruit more people into technical roles will play into this.
Perhaps most crucially of all, those driving net zero initiatives need to win the hearts and minds of the general public. Hence the need for social science and public engagement experts. This means governments, energy firms and other companies figuring out how the poorest and the most vulnerable in society can be supported in a world of higher bills and empowered to embrace zero-carbon alternatives in their everyday lives, so that no one is left behind. Expanding the UK’s Renewable Heat Incentive8 could be one of the ways of moving towards this.
Conclusion: a marriage of ambition and realism
The net zero goal is a noble one, and recent pledges by world leaders have certainly imbued the cause with a renewed sense of optimism. The most important thing of all though, is to be realistic in what we can achieve in the short, medium, and long-term future. If achievable targets are set, the right financial investments are made, and the most disadvantaged people are not made to suffer, there is every chance our efforts will be successful, and the society at large will fully support a transition to net-zero. people are not made to suffer, there is every chance our efforts will be successful, and the society at large will fully support a transition to net-zero.