Imperial College London

Imperial College London experts comment on UK Net Zero Strategy

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Photo shows two men lifting a heat pump onto brackets on the side of a house. The heat pump is a box about 1m x 0.7m x 0.5m with a grille on the front and a fan inside. The men wear high-viz jackets

Installation of a heat pump (Image credit: Marcela Gara, Resource Media / Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

Finance, heat pumps, transport, innovation, industry and green jobs are on the government's agenda ahead of the COP26 UN Climate Conference.

Just two weeks ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) opening in Glasgow, the UK government has set out how it intends to stop the nation contributing to more global warming.

The UK’s long-awaited net zero strategy shows that the UK government is serious about delivering net-zero. Alyssa Gilbert Director of Policy and Translation at the Grantham Institute

Imperial College London experts have contributed to the thinking behind the UK's first 'Net Zero Strategy', which includes plans to further cut how much greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere where they warm our planet's climate.

Following the publication of the strategy, experts have commented on the ambition and practicalities of the government's vision.

The announcement outlined funding for new technologies, policies that encourage individuals, businesses and authorities to make greener choices in energy, investment, transport and heating, and opportunities in green manufacturing, finance and energy to replace dwindling jobs in fossil fuel industries.

In 2019, then-Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans for the UK to become 'net zero' by 2050, which means cutting the amount of greenhouse gases created by human activities such as driving motor vehicles, burning gas or oil to heat buildings, agriculture (particularly farming animals), flying and manufacturing and using technological or natural solutions to remove from the atmosphere.

As co-host of COP26, UK diplomacy is important to secure commitment from other nations, international industrial sectors and decision-making bodies to deliver the positive benefits for public health, local environments, air quality and biodiversity that net-zero is expected to bring.

Alyssa Gilbert, Director of Policy and Translation, Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, broadly welcomed the report, saying:

"The UK’s long-awaited net zero strategy shows that the UK government is serious about delivering net-zero. There are a number of specific goals, across the full range of sectors, many with interim targets in the near or medium term that will help take us to net zero. This is a strong signal, as the UK is about to welcome the world’s nations to climate change negotiations in November."

The Net Zero Final Report references the Grantham Institute's submission to the UK Climate Change Committee [link opens a PDF document] and the Institute is acknowledged as one of the contributors to the report.

Benefits of financing the net-zero transition

Achieving net zero emissions will bring major economic benefits, which will outweigh upfront investment costs in the transition, and experts commented on the ambition of the UK's commitments.

The Strategy states that between 1990 and 2019, the UK has already shown international leadership by cutting emissions faster than any other G7 country, a 44% reduction.

Photo of Dr Mirabelle MuulsDr Mirabelle Muuls, Assistant Professor in Economics at Imperial College Business School, said:

"The Net Zero Strategy sets the path of how the UK can reach an ambitious target: it is now time for action. Behaviour change is put forward as an important element of the more systemic changes needed and the right incentives need to be in place for this to happen.

"The Treasury Net Zero Review highlights the importance of the market mechanism that carbon pricing offers. While higher taxes are also put forward, these are not the only option: the careful design of carbon markets and other economic policies can ensure that the transition to net-zero is also efficient and just."

Photo of Dr Rob GrossProfessor Robert Gross, Director of the UK Energy Research Centre and Professor of Energy Policy and Technology at Imperial College London, said:

"The UK has shown it can mobilise huge investment in the power sector, but households and small business will also have to play a role in transforming our energy system. Often this means upfront costs that save running costs. Innovation can make a heat pump cheaper, but the household will still need to find the cash to retrofit it to their home. We need to find a way to mobilise the capital needed, and this is a big challenge."

The Grantham Institute submitted a response to the Treasury Net Zero Review consultation, which is a process by which the government seeks expert contributions to its decision-making processes.

Heating homes and insulating buildings

The publication of the Net Zero Strategy follows on from announcement of a Heat and Buildings Strategy, which sets out the government's plan to reduce household greenhouse gas emissions, with grants to install low-carbon heating such as heat pumps, and supporting ongoing trials and innovation on future heating systems such as hydrogen powered heating.

Photo of Dr Kate SimpsonDr Kate Simpson, Research Associate on the Design for Retrofit project at Imperial College London, said:

"I welcomed the Heat and Buildings Strategy, it is more ambitious and practical than previous home energy policies, especially alongside the Net Zero Strategy. The focus on public engagement, upskilling the workforce and tailoring solutions to suit local need is very positive.

"However, I am concerned the funding to provide for engagement and upskilling is not yet clear. Furthermore, to ensure quality delivery of tailored whole-house retrofit plans, ensuring a fabric-first approach, local building control officers will require additional support. Setting up local delivery hubs is a positive move but, at this stage, it seems there is more detail required, for example clarifying the funding of local design and delivery, tailored for all tenure types and income groups, with adequate focus for each home.

"The continuous monitoring and evaluation should help this to be a success, potentially with adaptive policy measures along the way. Let’s hope it’s just the start of our journey toward truly sustainable, healthy existing homes that are affordable to heat and comfortable to occupy."

Photo of Dr Jeff HardyDr Jeff Hardy, Senior Research Fellow in the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said:

"Heating is an inherently local issue, and our work in a soon to be published EnergyREV report shows that a smart, local energy systems approach could enable a faster, lower cost and fairer transition. Key to this is unlocking flexibility in local energy systems, and this means ensuring that flexibility is valued, and all assets can access opportunities.

"A local approach, led by local people, including Local Authorities, would mean choosing a net-zero pathway that is in line with the local resources and citizens' values, needs, and preferences. In turn, this will require investment in local decision making."

Photo of Dr Rupert MyersDr Rupert Myers, Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Materials Engineering at Imperial College London, said:

"Draft-proofing for homes is hugely effective and much needed - simple, cheap, and readily deployable. Importantly, it reduces the demand for heating and is therefore essential to ease pressure on the energy grid, making it easier to decarbonise."

The Net Zero Strategy refers to a report on behaviour change and net zero written for the Committee on Climate Change written by Dr Richard Carmichael, Research Associate at Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy. It highlights Dr Carmichael's findings that the 44% reduction in UK emissions has so far been little aided by changing individual behaviour, and that there is low public awareness of the need to switch to low-carbon heat sources and systems.

Green jobs for a green nation

Towns and smaller cities that were struggling most with unemployment before the COVID-19  pandemic will have the highest labour market risk afterwards, according to recent research by Green Alliance. The analysis shows that these areas are also those with the highest potential for environmental improvements and, therefore, have the greatest opportunity for growth in green jobs, such as restoring nature.

Photo of Neil GrantNeil Grant, Research Postgraduate in the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said:

"It's really welcome that the government has understood the massive economic opportunity in the net-zero transition to create jobs, regenerate communities and transform our economy. It’s also welcome that the government has grasped that the cost of low-carbon technologies is a variable we can control. Clear and coherent policy has driven down the cost of renewables and batteries over the past decade, and we can replicate this for heat pumps and green hydrogen, accelerating the pace of our transition."

Photo of Prof Richard TemplerProfessor Richard Templer, Director of Innovation at the Grantham Institute and Hofmann Chair in Chemistry at Imperial College London, said:

"We need a clear plan of how workers in the oil and gas sector can be retrained to take their existing skills into the new economy. The hints of what might be possible abound, but I cannot see a plan. General statements about the job opportunities and skills retraining are laudable but do not constitute a basis for the rapid transition away from fossil fuels that is fair to workers in that sector.

"The strategy implicitly assumes the green economy delivers decarbonisation to the rest of the economy. Every job will have to be in the green economy. Education and training in what it means to 'go green' will be something we all need."

Zero carbon transport is key to a fair society

In the Net Zero Review's introduction, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that in 2050, "we will still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes, but our cars will be electric gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission allowing us to fly guilt-free".

Photo of Dr Drew PearceDr Drew Pearce, Research Associate in the Department of Physics at Imperial College London, said:

"The Net Zero Strategy is an important step forward and will take time to analyse and digest.  Transport targets to remove all tailpipe emissions from road vehicles are welcome but we also know that fewer as well as greener vehicles are needed. A lack of targets for vehicle numbers and kilometres travelled are a missed opportunity and in general demand management is not given the central prominence it needs.

"In addition, our recent work highlighted the importance of moving beyond tailpipe emissions and including a plan for elimination of emissions across the whole system including vehicle and infrastructure manufacturing even if it does not fall within our national budgets because of complex global supply chains.”

"Finally, this strategy is very high-level and the details of which policies will be levered to achieve this, including specific detail on the actual carbon savings of each one, is lacking. This is vital, particularly in the transport sector which has proved very resistant to mitigation."

Neil Grant, Research Postgraduate in the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said:

"Disappointingly, the strategy appears to play down public engagement with climate change solutions, with no reference to changing diets, an insistence that we will be able to continue to fly ‘guilt-free’ in 2050 (despite the fact that in all modelled pathways in the Strategy, aviation is still emitting 20-40MtCO2 in 2050), and a repeated commitment to ‘go with the grain’ of consumer preferences. This ignores the fact that consumer preferences can be plastic and shaped by policy, societal norms and infrastructure. In this context, we urgently need to see a public engagement strategy from BEIS, greater consideration of how we can shape consumer preferences on the road to net zero, and more ambition on the role that citizens can play in tackling the climate crisis."

Explore the world in 2050 according to Imperial College London experts and innovators in an interactive digital feature by the Grantham Institute and Imperial Tech Foresight.

Industry is an important economic force in the UK, and needs solutions

The report aims to deliver £100 million of investment in innovation that could enable greenhouse gases to be removed from the atmosphere and from industrial and power plants, which in turn will leverage private investment and demand for transferrable engineering expertise from the UK’s oil and gas sector.

Photo of Prof Nilay ShahProfessor Nilay Shah, Professor of Process Systems Engineering at Imperial College London, said:

"The strategy provides a clear vision for how the UK can achieve its net zero ambitions together with interim milestones. It’s good to see integration across the elements and a systems approach. The balance of emissions reduction and greenhouse gas removal (GGR) is appropriate and the deployment of GGR technologies is being accelerated rather than left to the 2040s.

"It's interesting to see, as widely expected, levies being considered to move from electricity to gas; this makes sense but must be balanced with support for those suffering or in danger of suffering from energy poverty.

"Industrial decarbonisation is an important part of energy and industrial strategy and the plan for investment in the key clusters is welcome. However, the needs of a range of industries in e.g. the East and West Midlands and Staffordshire will need to be met in creative ways too."

Imperial College London has recently established a centre for climate change innovation in partnership with the Royal Institution, Arup, the Centre for Net Zero, HSBC UK, the Mayor of London, Pollination and Slaughter & May. The new venture will support inventors and match them with investors who share their vision for a cleaner, greener, fairer future.

Setting the scene for COP26 climate change negotiations

Experts also used the opportunity to remind the UK government that consistency is important for businesses and authorities to make long term plans and invest in a cleaner, greener future. Alongside the release of the strategy, the government have also released Net Zero: principles for successful behaviour change initiatives and Net Zero Review Final Report, both of which reference Imperial contributions.

Photo of Dr Ajay GambhirDr Ajay Gambhir, Senior Research Fellow in the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said:

"Net-zero targets are good, net-zero strategies are better, but clear, firm and credible policies supported by considerable funding are what’s really needed to deliver net-zero. In this document we’re seeing a raft of promising policies. But the key question is whether this government, and others to follow, will hold their nerve, and not just continue their policy support for the low-carbon transition, but actually ramp up ambition, in spite of the doubters, deniers and demagogues that will question its purpose in the years to come. Recent examples, such as scrapping the green homes grant and reducing electric vehicle grants, are not good platforms on which to build. They must do better."

Photo of Prof Martin SiegertProfessor Martin Siegert, Co-director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said:

“The government's net-zero strategy has big ambitions - a roadmap to deliver a pathway to substantially reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the UK by 2035, and beyond that for no net emissions. The sums of investments on offer are modest, however. Where tens of billions of pounds are needed each year, the government offers hundreds of millions - 1% of what's needed to drive the 'green industrial revolution'. Government hopes the gap will be closed by private investment, and that tax-payers money can kick-start such financing. While this approach has worked quite well for renewable energy, there is no guarantee that it will be as good in other sectors and industries.

“If additional investments are not forthcoming, what is the government's Plan B? Or is this all that can ever be on offer from the government? The government has certainly set its stall out clearly and obviously can be judged on delivering on the strategy. If it doesn't work out, our pathway to net zero will be ever more difficult to reach by 2050."

Imperial College London are official observers to the COP26 conference.  Read more about the delegation of attendees and the evidence that the Grantham Institute and colleagues are presenting for policymakers and the public.

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Simon Levey

Simon Levey
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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Email: s.levey@imperial.ac.uk

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