Innovating to Net Zero

Published: 2 July 2020

Achieving the UK’s Net Zero carbon emission targets by 2050 will require unprecedented innovation across the economy in new technologies, new ways of deploying existing technologies, new business models, new consumer offerings, and, crucially, new policy, regulation and market design.

The groundbreaking project by Energy Systems Catapult found Net Zero by 2050 is possible if the UK supports innovation and scale-up across three essential areas – Low Carbon Technology, Land Use and Lifestyle.

The Net Zero Challenge

In 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change published evidence on what would be required for a 1.5°C limit and the implications of not doing so.

In May 2019, the CCC recommended a Net Zero emissions target by 2050 to the UK Government, which included supporting research such as our Living Carbon Free report on implications for households.

In June 2019, the UK Government amended the Climate Change Act from 80% to 100% emissions reduction – or Net Zero – by 2050. ‘Net’ means balancing any residual carbon emissions with an equal quantity of carbon dioxide removals from the atmosphere.

Our Approach

In March 2020, Energy Systems Catapult updated of its internationally peer-reviewed Energy System Modelling Environment (ESME) to take account of new Net Zero targets. EMSE is the UK’s leading techno-economic whole system model and is independent of sector interests.

ESME is a whole-system optimisation model and finds the least-cost combination of energy resources and technologies that satisfy UK energy service demands along the pathway to 2050. Constraints include net zero greenhouse gas emissions targets, resource availability and technology deployment rates, as well as operational factors that ensure adequate system capacity and flexibility.

Importantly, ESME explores down to regional-level, assessing the infrastructure needed to join up resources, technologies and demands across the UK, such as transmission and distribution of electricity and gas, and pipelines and storage for carbon.

The Outputs

The Innovating to Net Zero report modelled 100s of potential pathways to 2050 – ramping up or down different technologies and behaviour changes – to understand the combinations, interactions and trade-offs of competing decarbonisation approaches.

Innovating to Net Zero banner

The main Innovating to Net Zero report found:

  • Electricity generation from renewables and nuclear will need to double to supply huge increases in heating and transport (perhaps treble if hydrogen uses electrolysis).
  • CCS and bioenergy are essential for industry and offsetting emissions from aviation and livestock.
  • Hydrogen may need to reach levels equivalent to today’s electricity generation.
  • Land use must be optimised to balance carbon sequestration – such as new forestry to provide a net carbon sink – with other agricultural needs.

Understanding Net Zero - Consumer Perspective banner

Understanding Net Zero: A Consumer Perspective report found:

  • People think something must be done about climate change, but are less clear on the causes or actions needed.
  • Only 49% of people said gas central heating contributed to climate change.
  • Less than 20% of people would consider switching to low carbon heating.
  • Less than 2% of people had switched to low carbon heating.

Digitalisation for Net Zero banner

Digitalisation for Net Zero report found:

  • The complexity and scale of integrating the technologies and solutions to reach Net Zero is not possible without the digitalisation of the energy system.
  • Data is key to optimising decisions for lowest carbon dioxide and lowest cost to consumers.
  • This report also introduces our new Digital Energy Fitness assessment for businesses.

Nuclear for Net Zero banner

Nuclear for Net Zero report recommended:

  • Committing to 10GW pipeline of new large nuclear reactors can get costs down
  • Developing next generation nuclear plants to deploy with hydrogen production
  • Developing light-water small modular reactors to deploy with city-scale District Heating Networks


The Impact

Innovating for Net Zero received considerable media coverage and interest across the energy sector, including: