It is vital to reach net zero emissions but not by pursuing a 2025 deadline

Published on 13 May 2019

If the world can get to net zero in the second half of this century we should be able to avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change. The UK should play its part.

I am a member of the committee on climate change whose recent report recommended that the UK should aim for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. I’ve been gratified by the generally positive response, but also rather concerned. It’s easier to appear supportive, even argue for more ambition than to engage with the issues. Aiming to get to net zero is the right thing to do but will not be easy.

Perhaps we have been lulled by the remarkable progress we as a country have made. Emissions are 40 per cent down over the past 30 years while the size of the economy has nearly doubled. That is no mean achievement.

But most of that has gone unnoticed by most of us. Much of the progress has come from changing the way we generate electricity. What comes out of the socket is just the same as it ever was. It is more expensive than it would have been had no climate policies been put in place, but for most of us the net effect of this higher price on the one hand and more efficient appliances and better insulation on the other has made little difference to energy bills. In fact the price of many renewables, not least offshore wind, is fast falling towards the price of conventional generation.

The next phase of change will be different. Electric cars will be a crucial part of that change. Surface transport is now the biggest sectoral source of CO2emissions. Electric cars may take some getting used to, but hopefully we’ll become accustomed to them without too much trouble. In all likelihood by the 2030s they will be cheaper to buy and run than the traditional petrol variety. And we will all benefit from the cleaner air we’ll get to breathe.

However, they will pose one major headache, initially for the Treasury and hence eventually probably for the rest of us. Taxes on fuel bring in more than £30 billion a year. If we all go electric that will drop close to zero. Expect future chancellors to try to make up some of that, perhaps through some form of road pricing. If the same amount is raised in total that will inevitably leave some of us worse off.

And that’s probably the easiest bit. What about how we heat our homes? We nearly all use gas, and that’s a major source of emissions. We know technically how to change that. We could install ground or air source heat pumps. We could, but we’re not doing so at the moment. And unlike getting our electricity from a different source, that’s a change we’ll notice. There will be a financial one up front if there isn’t taxpayer support and a hassle cost for sure. It also becomes a lot easier to meet targets if we turn our thermostats down. Are we willing to do that?

Then there’s the challenge for business. We are further from having electric or hydrogen-powered lorries than we are electric cars and vans. If we are to continue with some heavy industry, we will need to capture and store the carbon dioxide created from burning fossil fuels, or industry will have to switch to using alternative fuels such as hydrogen. While in some areas such as the development of renewables and battery technology things have been going much better than expected a decade ago, progress with carbon capture and storage has been slow. We will also need to free up agricultural land for tree planting, probably keep a lid on our desire to fly more and perhaps even change our diets.

This is not intended to scare you. It is certainly not intended to suggest we shouldn’t be aiming to get to net zero by 2050. We should. A world in which we and other major economies don’t achieve something like that will be too awful to contemplate. And the fact is that with well-designed policy it is pretty clear we can get there at a reasonable — though not a negligible — cost. But policy does need to be well designed, we do need to get a move on, people need to be engaged and we need to be ready to cushion and support those for whom this will, inevitably, be costly.

Some of those who argue that we should do a lot less are ignoring the clear evidence that the social, economic and environmental costs of anything like business as usual are potentially catastrophic. A slightly more sophisticated criticism is that what the UK does by itself will be almost irrelevant because we are responsible for only a tiny fraction of worldwide emissions. That’s true. But science tells us that every country must eventually get to net zero emissions or we’ll keep warming the planet. As a wealthy country with the ability to cut emissions, to respond by not doing our “fair share” would, in my view, be straightforwardly unethical.

What about going much faster? The Extinction Rebellion group has demanded that the UK get to zero emissions by 2025. That is essentially impossible, or achievable only at such vast cost to, and impact on, our living standards that trying to do it would put back the case for genuine action for a generation and more.

If the world can get to net zero in the second half of this century we should be able to avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change. The UK should play its part. We should do so urgently but also sensibly, efficiently and sustainably. Neither those who deny the need for action nor those who pretend that we can act costlessly or can stop all emissions in less than a decade do us any favours.

This article was originally published in The Times and is reproduced here with full permission. Paul Johnson is director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Follow him on @PJTheEconomist.