Net Zero 2050 possible with targeted innovation and scale up

Published: 10 March 2020

A new report by Energy Systems Catapult has found Net Zero by 2050 is possible with support for innovation and scale-up across three essential areas – Low Carbon Technology, Land Use and Lifestyle.

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.

The internationally peer-reviewed Energy System Modelling Environment (ESME) is the UK’s leading techno-economic whole system model – which has been used by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), industry, academia and the UK Government. ESME is independent of sector interests and identifies cost-optimised decarbonisation pathways across the whole system.

Energy Systems Catapult Insight and Evidence lead Scott Milne, said: “Last year the UK became the first major economy in the world to commit to a ‘Net Zero’ emissions target by 2050.

“Now for the first time, we’ve modelled hundreds of potential pathways to get to Net Zero emissions by 2050, ramping up or down different technologies and behaviour changes – to understand the different combinations, interactions and trade-offs of competing decarbonisation options to reach the most cost-optimised approaches.

“Broadly each potential pathway uses a combination of two different approaches: a top-down technology focused approach or a bottom-up behaviour focused approach.

“However, what stands out is – no matter which pathway the UK takes – innovation, investment and incentives across low carbon technology, land use and lifestyle is essential to achieve Net Zero carbon.

“And there are massive economic opportunities for the UK to lead the world in these areas.”

Net Zero 2050 UK Pathways

Below are two of the 100s of potential pathways we have modelled to get the UK to Net Zero by 2050:

  • ‘Clockwork’ – a more top-down technology focused approach
  • ‘Patchwork’ – a more bottom-up behaviour focused approach.

While these are not meant to be predictions or recommended pathways, they do explore two very different approaches to how the UK’s decarbonisation targets could be met, highlighting some of the key challenges and opportunities any approach would face.

Clockwork

In Clockwork, coordination from central Government drives long term investment in strategic energy infrastructure in the power sector, nuclear and wind generation are underpinned by support to develop the supply chain and workforce. Markets are created for negative emissions with carbon capture and storage, domestic biomass and afforestation.

(1) Low Carbon Technology

Carbon Capture & Storage with Bioenergy – up to 170 MtCO2/yr of storage by 2050 to capture industrial emissions (including hydrogen production) and to offset lifestyle carbon emissions from air travel and livestock.

Hydrogen – grows to levels equivalent to today’s electricity generation 250-300TWh/yr using a mix of steam methane reformation with CCS and biomass gasification with CCS to supply industry, heat and heavy transport.

Electricity – generation double to around 600TWh/yr to supply heating and transport. Under this high nuclear scenario, 50GW of Wind Power capacity generates 212TWh and around 20GW of Solar PV capacity generates less than 20TWh, with Advanced Nuclear Technologies providing up to 30GW of capacity generating 230TWh. Small Modular Nuclear up to 7GW at 300MW each is an option to support ¾ of all District Heating in cities.

(2) Land Use

Livestock – production for dairy and meat is cut by around 20%.

Tree planting – up to 30,000 hectares every year for carbon sequestration and offsetting up to 22 MtCO2/yr by 2050.

Biomass (coupled with CCS) – crops regularly harvested for energy of up to 120TWh/yr by 2050, offering more intensive and indefinite sequestration.

(3) Lifestyle

Meat/ dairy consumption – reduces by 20% to deliver 8 MtCO2e saving by 2050 versus today.

Aviation demand growth – increase in passenger demand of 60% versus 2005 levels.

Patchwork

In Patchwork, central Government takes less of a leading role, resulting in a patchwork of regional low carbon or carbon neutral strategies. Nuclear is limited to three large power stations and a few smaller modular reactors. Offshore wind, distributed solar PV and other renewable energy supply most of the electricity. Without central support, CCS and domestic biomass struggles to grow, but the public supports big growth in woodland.

(1) Low Carbon Technology

Carbon Capture & Storage with Bioenergy – up to 77 MtCO2/yr of storage by 2050 to capture industrial emissions.

Hydrogen – grows to about 186TWh/yr using a mix of biomass gasification with CCS and electrolysis.

Electricity – generation more than double to over 700TWh/yr (may even need to triple) to supply heating, transport and electrolysis for hydrogen. Under this high renewables scenario, 90GW of Wind Power capacity generates 370TWh and around 80GW of Solar PV capacity generates 73TWh. Nuclear is restricted Hinkley Point plus two others with limited Small Modular Nuclear reactors.

Storage and Flexibility – major innovation and deployment in electric and heat storage technologies are developed with timescales from seconds to seasons to manage extreme weather conditions caused in part by global warming.

(2) Land Use

Livestock – production for dairy and meat is cut by around 50%.

Tree planting – up to 50,000 hectares (a forest up to twice the size of Birmingham) every year for carbon sequestration and offsetting up to 33 MtCO2/yr by 2050.

Biomass (coupled with CCS) – crops regularly harvested for energy of up to 80TWh/yr by 2050, offering more intensive and indefinite sequestration.

(3) Lifestyle

Meat/ dairy consumption – reduces by 50% to deliver 19 MtCO2e saving by 2050 versus today.

Aviation demand growth – increase in passenger demand of 20% versus 2005 levels.

4 Key Net Zero Policy Recommendations

  1. Innovation support for technologies – Nuclear, CCS and hydrogen – direct support for innovation and early deployment such as industrial clusters for CCS, funding mechanisms for CO2 transport & storage infrastructure, and support for advanced and modular nuclear and floating offshore wind.
  2. Economic incentives to go low carbon – balanced, economywide framework of market, pricing and regulatory interventions – such as new carbon dioxide standards for buildings to promote adoption of low or zero carbon heating and potentially road transport, and new incentives for climate friendly land use choices.
  3. Local Area Energy Planning – rolled out to identify the unique low carbon solutions, infrastructure and investment needs in different local areas to shape decision making.
  4. Reform of power markets – to improve efficiency and unlock flexibility and distributed low carbon technologies, including to match user needs and local system circumstances.

Net Zero BEFORE 2050?

The report found that to reduce emissions to Net Zero before 2050 is unlikely without highly speculative changes to lifestyle, land use and low carbon technologies – such as banning aviation and meat production. 



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