Speech: Carbon Zero Britain

There is room for hope with the climate crisis...

By Office of Wera Hobhouse, Jun 20, 2019 2:06


At The Green Lib Dem Conference, Climate Change spokesperson Wera Hobhouse set out her vision of how we make Britain Carbon Zero by 2045...

Here's a summary of the speech: 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report at the end of last year that said we need to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels to avoid catastrophe.

In order to meet this goal the Committee on Climate Change said that in the UK we need to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The Liberal Democrats have always been the UK’s leading mainstream party when it comes to the environment, and are now developing a policy for our autumn conference to achieve net-zero by 2045.

While there are of course various proposed ways to get to net-zero, there are some general factors that have to be worked with.
The World Wild Life fund has produced a scenario, which gives a good sense of these factors:

  1. In some sectors we can, with our existing technologies, cut emissions to zero or almost zero.
  2. In some sectors there will continue to be some emissions unless there is some major technological change.
  3. We will need to use some negative emissions methods to take carbon dioxide out of the air.

These are the sectors where we can achieve carbon zero with existing technologies:

  1. Generation of electricity - we can do this entirely from renewable resources. Complications include supplying energy consistently even on days when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, but these can be solved with improved methods of storage.
  2. Surface transport - all passenger cars can run off electricity or hydrogen. Although there are challenges with heavy vehicles and shipping, which may require use of carbon-neutral biofuels, these problems can be solved.
  3. Heating - all boilers can run off electricity or hydrogen.

These are the sectors where we can reduce emissions but the technology does not exist to remove emissions entirely:

  1. Aviation - there is not as yet a known replacement for jet fuel.
  2. Industry - certain industrial processes (e.g. plastics) will always involve some emissions.
  3. Agriculture - The beef industry is a very significant producer of methane. 

As, in every scenario, there will still be some greenhouse gas emissions, we will also need to invest heavily in negative emissions technologies. There are two basic methods for doing this:

  1. Planting forests- this is nature’s tried and tested method. Photosynthesis takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The problem is basically one of space. We cannot plant enough forests to offset residual emissions.
  2. Technological methods- taking carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it in the ground. This is known in the jargon as ‘Direct Air Capture with Carbon Storage’ (DACCS). Currently the technology for this is not developed, and it looks likely to be expensive and require a lot of energy.

The Liberal Democrats are committed to climate action but if we only set out target for two and a half decades down the line there is a risk that we get to 2044 and say, ‘oh dear’.

The UK is not currently on track even to meet its old target of bringing down emissions by 80%. So we need to set clear and ambitious targets, backed up by strong legislation, for the interim between now and 2045. A good start would be to ban fracking today.

There are three major political challenges we will have to address:

Firstly, there is a lot of inertia within politics. The government’s commitment to the 2050 target this week is welcome but the next prime minister is likely to try to row back on it. Although there has been a fantastic rise in public awareness of the climate crisis in recent months, we need to keep up relentless pressure. We need to get widespread public buy-in for climate action. Citizens Assemblies are one method that we Liberal Democrats believe could help achieve that.

Secondly, we of course need to take a positive, cooperative approach when working with the business community. We are relying on business to find innovative solutions to many of the problems we need to solve. But we also cannot be naïve about the realities of tackling vested interests. There are significant differences between our approach and what, for example, the fossil fuel lobby wants. We need to be smart when fighting these battles.

Thirdly, and most importantly, some of the things that will have to happen to transition to net-zero risk placing an unfair burden on those who can least afford it. Much of our approach will be about providing incentives to people, for example incentivising them to drive electric cars, or to make their houses more efficient. But at the crunch we will also have to be tough, using the stick alongside the carrot, and when we do so we need to make sure we do so in a fair way. We do not want to end up slapping punitive taxes on the most vulnerable. So we need to put serious thought into how to achieve social justice.

The transition to carbon-zero provides an excellent opportunity to build a fairer society in line with our values. We need to turn that opportunity into reality.

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