On track for net zero? Observers respond to the UK government’s ten-point green plan

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Commentators in the environmental sphere seemed to broadly welcome the UK government’s “Ten-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution”, unveiled on 18 November, although some lamented its apparent inconsistencies. While an audible sucking-in-of-breath might have seemed in evidence with energy experts appraisal of the technical challenges of speeding-up the transition to electric vehicles, other observers waxed lugubriously about a lack of ambition in the plan

But in getting sustainability back on the agenda following the hiatus of the pandemic, environmental commentators seemed universally appreciative. One recent study of firms appears to show that Covid-19 has caused 38% of them to de-prioritise sustainability to some degree, with 18% putting it on hold completely in the early stages of the pandemic.

Announced as “the beginning of the UK’s path to net zero” the plan sets out a number of initiatives in areas such as energy, transport, carbon capture and flood defences. Prominent among these was an intention to advance faster along the timeline towards banning diesel and petrol cars – now scheduled for 2030 instead of 2040.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineering (IMechE) Policy Advisor Matt Rooney described the announcement as “a collection of the various policies on decarbonisation that the Government has been working on for some time.” He said: “The challenge now is to bring this all together into a practical and deliverable plan with joined-up thinking across the whole energy system.”

Electric avenue
While advancing the ban on diesel and petrol cars was broadly welcomed, for its impact on both GHG emissions and air quality, many observers wondered about the feasibility of an earlier-than-expected transition to EVs. Kalibrate CEO Oliver Shaw said the two most pressing challenges were the lack of EV charging stations and the cost of EVs.

“Currently, our EV charging network is not comprehensive enough to cater for a rapid adoption of electric vehicles by consumers,” he said. “To put it into perspective, it would require around 4,000 charging points to be installed every day between now and 2030.”

“Building an EV charging network doesn’t happen overnight; it will require a significant investment to make it possible and, more importantly, a deep understanding of where these EV points need to be placed to make EV ownership more appealing to consumers.”

Around £1.3 billion is being allocated to funding this EV charging infrastructure, and Shaw and others said it would take proper consultation with the industry to execute this plan. Richard Molloy of Eaton said “industry leaders must work in tandem with the Government and think big as far as how – and where – to invest” the allocated funds.

“Besides commercial and industrial ‘smart’ charging,” he said, “leveraging technologies such as energy storage and demand response will support the growth of solar, wind and other green power sources.” He felt this would support the UKs shift to “an affordable, flexible, renewables-led holistic energy system to support the impending surge in energy demand from EVs.”

An additional £582 million will be available in grants to help people buy zero or ultra-low emission vehicles. And nearly £500 million will be spent in the next four years on the development and mass-scale production of electric vehicle batteries.

Making EVs more affordable was still seen as a major hurdle. Shaw suggested the cost of electricity – currently cheaper than petrol or diesel – “could be increased to help reduce the initial cost of purchasing an EV, though that would make the maintenance for current and new users more expensive.”

Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP) was one of the groups who provided a submission to the government consultation on the phase-out. Managing Director Andy Eastlake said the measure was “setting a bold example to countries around the world as we prepare for next year’s climate summit in Glasgow.”

“Now, battery technology has come of age and the capabilities of electric cars are rising fast while costs are falling,” he said, adding that “simple economics” was now impelling this transition.

“We believe the targets are achievable, appropriate and many LowCVP members called for exactly this timing in order to maximise the impact on greenhouse gas emissions, but it will require partnership working at an unprecedented scale; between industries, and with government and the public to get us where we’ll need to be.”

The government also announced plans to launch a consultation on the phase-out of new diesel HGVs “to put the UK in the vanguard of zero emission freight”, although no date was set.

Energy: A central question
The Plan set out a number of initiatives in relation to energy. These included plans to quadruple the quantity of wind power generated by 2030 to 40GW, enough “to power every home”. And up to £500 million has been earmarked to increase green hydrogen generation to 5GW of production capacity by 2030 for industry, transport, power and homes, in addition to developing “the first town heated entirely by hydrogen by the end of the decade.”

Nuclear will also be advanced as “a clean energy source”, and £525 million is available to help develop large and smaller-scale nuclear plants, and research and develop new advanced modular reactors.

Energy storage expert Altelium highlighted “inconsistencies” in the plan, especially around energy creation and storage, and transport. “We need to bring power generation nearer to people,” said CEO Charley Grimston, “with local generation and storage of power.” The government’s Green Plan seems to move “in the opposite direction”, given its focus on nuclear energy and offshore wind, “and brings with it much less independence and security for the UK.”

Grimston also believed more support was needed for the automotive industry and its supply chain. “Where will all the new electric vehicles come from? Where will the batteries be made?” The £500 million fund announced for mass-scale production of batteries, he said, “does not compare to investment in countries such as Germany where figures are in the billions for new battery manufacturing plants.”

He also wondered about the omission of autonomous vehicles from the plan, “which will bring huge opportunities as well as challenges.” The fact that HS2 is being funded to the tune of billions “illustrates the inconsistencies in the plan.” He said: “Autonomous electric vehicles could transform our roads and entire approach to vehicle ownership and travel. Yet investment in this is dwarfed by the spend on a single line of train track.”

Home economics
Homes and public buildings also featured prominently, with an intention to make “our homes, schools and hospitals greener, warmer and more energy efficient, whilst creating 50,000 jobs by 2030, and a target to install 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028.” Around £1 billion was earmarked for initiatives including improving energy efficiency of buildings, and extending the Green Grant voucher scheme (which began in September) by a further year.

Heat pumps supplier NIBE Energy Systems felt it was “promising to see the Government’s commitment to rolling out 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028 as part of plans to improve the efficiency of homes and public buildings.”

“This is a huge step in the right direction considering that just 27,000 heat pumps were installed in 2019. However, we will need to see these targets ramped up down the line to meet over 1 million installations per year by the mid-2030s.” The firm said these were the figures needed to deliver the 19 million heat pumps the net zero target necessitates, according to the Committee on Climate Change.

“Furthermore, along with necessary grant provision, it is important that the Government delivers boldly on its Future Home Standards along with tightening regulations in the retrofit heating market.”

Enforcing compliance was another traditional area of weakness where some observers felt it was time for the government to step up its game. Matthew Farrow, director of policy at the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), said: “Government must now focus on boosting enforcement of policies, such as energy efficiency regulations, where compliance is sometimes scandalously low.”

“Without more effort and resources put into this area, today’s encouraging announcements are likely to have limited impact.”

Residential heating may be one of the biggest carbon emitters, but fulfilling the ambition of carbon neutrality by 2050 means energy efficiency in the industrial and commercial sector is indispensable, as Jonathan Maxwell, CEO of Sustainable Development Capital, suggested. He said he would “strongly encourage” the government to consider both commercial and residential energy solutions in its plan. “Due to inefficiencies in generation and distribution more than half of the energy provided to buildings, which use 40% of the world’s energy, can be lost before it reaches its end use,” he said. But efficiency levels could be improved to over 90% via “projects that deliver onsite energy generation to commercial buildings or industrial processes, or the installation of energy efficiency equipment upgrades to a company’s estate.”

Carbon capture brings jobs to the north
Putative tech enthusiast Dominic Cummings is presumed the author of the plan’s stated ambition for the UK to become a world leader in carbon capture, usage and storage, with “a target to remove 10MT of carbon dioxide by 2030, equivalent to all emissions of the industrial Humber today.” On top of the government’s late 2019 funding announcements in this area, the plan pegs an additional £200 million of new funding “to create two carbon capture clusters by the mid-2020s, with another two set to be created by 2030.” This brings the total sum invested up to £1 billion, “helping to support 50,000 jobs, potentially in areas such as the Humber, Teesside, Merseyside, Grangemouth and Port Talbot.”

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) said the plans “will help put the UK on track to becoming one of the world’s cleanest economies while boosting business and creating thousands of jobs in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic”. Chair of the CCC Lord Deben expressed delight at “the breadth” of the commitment. He said: “This must now be turned into a detailed road map – so we all know what’s coming down the track in the years ahead. CCC chief executive Chris Stark said the plan was “our path out of the economic challenges created by the COVID crisis.” And, he said, “it is a set of commitments that will raise the UK’s credibility ahead of the pivotal COP26 climate summit next year. This is just the tonic as we look to 2021.”