The UK set its first climate change target back in 1997 under the Kyoto Protocol. With a commitment to reduce emissions by 12.5 per cent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012, the target allowed for incremental decarbonisation efforts as opposed to an economy-wide transition. Nonetheless, the UK managed to reduce its carbon intensity (tonnes of carbon emitted per unit of GDP) by an average of 3.7 per cent a year from 2000 to 2017, successfully decoupling emissions from economic growth – and it did this by seizing the easy-win decarbonisation opportunities, primarily in power generation.
Fast-forward 22 years from Kyoto and the UK, business included, is facing an altogether more daunting prospect. On 11 May, the Government committed to follow the Committee on Climate Change (CCC)’s advice: to adopt a 2050 net-zero target. Following this statement of political will, adoption of the target in legislation is expected to soon follow. To align Britain with a 1.5 degree warming trajectory and to set an example to other countries, it is likely that we will need to reach net-zero by 2050 at the latest, if not before. Despite the urgency mandated by such an ambitious target, mainstream discourse in the business community is yet to reflect the net-zero paradigm, with discussions all too often focusing on piecemeal achievements.
The UK’s current legislated target is for an 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 – not so far off net-zero. However, cutting the last 20 per cent means there is no margin for leftover emissions in the hard-to-decarbonise sectors of buildings, transport and industry without significant deployment of negative emissions technology. The cumulative impact of small and medium sized businesses in these sectors will be crucial in order to replicate the successes seen in power generation.
Reaching net-zero in the UK by mid-century will require a series of paradigm shifts to happen in unison across the energy system. This reflects the target’s alignment with the recent IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5°C, which notes that “Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale.”
The past year has seen a notable change in discourse, with net-zero and 1.5 degrees supplanting 2 degrees as the mainstream climate community’s rallying cry. Businesses must now wrestle with what these large-scale, systemic shifts may mean for their future operations and strategy.