The power of zero

There’s a lot to digest in the report from the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) earlier this month. The full release, including technical appendices, runs to more than 500 pages. There are already plenty of endorsements of the recommendations, and critiques doing the rounds.

They’ve tried very hard to boil it all down to a single diagram, but it doesn’t really do the report justice.

Whatever we think about the detail, though, the report is important because zero is such an important idea to work with.

Zero is a conversation changer. It says we can’t settle for doing part of the job. The only goal that makes sense is complete decarbonisation. That’s why we put it in our name too. And it is super-encouraging that the CCC report – prepared at the government’s request – rises the profile of zero. ZeroWest is trying to find the positives in the energy transition, overall, and to promote projects that move us in the right direction. But the bottom line is that we are working against continued greenhouse gas emissions.

Going for zero cuts through all the hedges, and negotiations about targets. The CCC insists that it must be achieved in the UK, without using any internationally sourced carbon credits. And it urges the simple target because:

Within the UK, a 100% all-GHG target sends a clear signal that all greenhouse gases matter and all need to be reduced. No sources of emissions can qualify for special treatment. All emissions from all sectors must be eliminated or offset with removals.

This is the key point – no-one is exempt from doing what’s needed. As former top climate negotiator Christina Fugueres told Business Green, “At 80 per cent, everybody thinks they are going to be the 20 per cent that is not decarbonised,” ….

She went on to argue that: “Once you say you are going towards full decarbonisation – 100 per cent – then the timescale actually falls by its own weight, as you unleash innovation and the forces of the market to get that decarbonisation.”

She’s right about innovation, too, as the falling cost curves for solar, wind and batteries already show. The CCC report neglects the possibilities for driving innovation through regulation and subsidy, and sticks to noting that technology has already improved. But it is true that the relative costs of energy technologies have moved in the right direction, and are very likely to go on doing so.

More broadly, the target means that the market – with strong nudges from governments in the form of carbon levies – can work to move capital out of fossil fuels. Once enough big investors shun oil and gas their future as stranded assets becomes clear and everyone else will follow suit. We aren’t there yet, but a zero target could make that shift happen a lot sooner.

Of course others have realised this before – and Paul Allen’s work at the Centre for Alternative Technology has been an important stimulus to thinking in the UK for years. But the CCC, as an official government advisory committee that monitors climate progress, will carry more weight – we hope.

They are too conservative in some of their proposals – compare, for example, Greenpeace’s draft Climate Emergency plan. And there is good reason to contest their target date of 2050. But if we and others can use this report to shift the conversation to the right deadline for zero, instead of discussing targets that fall short of zero, that is a real gain.

The CCC retain the customary get-out, of course, that the policy goal is “net-zero” rather than actual zero. That is, there will be residual carbon emissions that have to be removed by technologies old and new – trees are a big part of the committee’s plans there.

But let’s be optimistic that this can open the way to the next essential stage. Why stop at zero? We must achieve net zero with a balance of technologies that generate carbon dioxide or methane and others that get it out of the air again. Then we can plan to reduce emissions further, and boost removal, and actually begin to bring greenhouse gas levels down globally. Buzz lightyear’s slogan needs updating: To Zero and beyond!

Author: Jon Turney