Net zero by 2050 – the race is on

During a global crisis, it can be overwhelming to think of future targets, but climate change is not going to fade away and 30 years isn’t a long time, says David Cole of Atkins.

While it may not have been on the forefront of our minds over the last few months, the threat of climate change has not gone away. Amongst the pledges to ‘build, build, build’ post-Covid, are those urging the UK’s pandemic recovery to not only be better, but also greener. 

Last year, the UK became the first major economy to put a net zero emissions target into legislation, following a recommendation by the Committee on Climate Change in response to the 2015 Paris Agreement. This commitment is incredibly ambitious just as it is pioneering but what do we need to do to get there by 2050 and lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth?  

Pressure on our power system

The power sector holds the key. It must totally decarbonise electricity generation and double its output from 300TWh to over 650TWh to meet our energy and electrification demands. Over the last decade, our progress includes the closure of almost all coal fired electricity generation; zero carbon nuclear and renewables generating over 50% of electricity in 2019 and carbon intensity dropping from 500g/kWhr to 170g/kWhr.  

But let’s not underestimate the sheer size of the challenge. We must replace almost all our current generating capacity and build as much again. This is an estimated build rate of 9-12 GW every year, for 30 years and must come from a range of firm power (natural gas, nuclear and biomass) and intermittent sources (offshore, onshore wind and solar). To put it into context, the highest we’ve reached was 6GW in 2012 of gas and renewables infrastructure. 

Counting gigawatts and units – how many do we need?

We are currently achieving 43% of the required build rate. How many more units across the energy industry do we need to build?   

  • Natural gas: 40GW or 48 units
  • Biomass: 5GW or 66 units
  • Nuclear: 10GW or 6 units
  • Offshore wind: 75GW or 6250 wind turbines
  • The number of units for onshore wind (20GW) and solar power (80GW) are still undefined
  • Carbon Capture Storage (CCS): 176mT/year or four times the current global capacity 
  • Hydrogen: 7mT/year or a tenfold increase to our current production 
  • Energy storage: 15-30GW

Achieving net zero is totally dependent on three industries. CCS, hydrogen and energy storage, all of which are in their infancies as industries. 40% will be dependent on CCS to capture carbon from aviation, buildings, cars, and energy infrastructure. 30% will be delivered via hydrogen (for heating and transportation). Energy storage will balance a future system made up of intermittent renewables. 

This is doable but the role of the government is fundamental 

The energy industry knows this is doable and all efforts are being made to prove this to the government. Market intervention in the UK offshore wind market brought down the cost of construction and electricity. The result? We’re a global industry leader. Now other markets need similar intervention. 

Nuclear has seen recent investment in nuclear technology for heat and hydrogen, but more is required. A number of consortiums featuring industry leaders, trade unions and MPs are calling for financial support and backing for nuclear, hydrogen and new technologies including Sizewell C, UK SMR programme, Moorside Clean Energy Hub, and North West Hydrogen Alliance. 

The proposed Sizewell C will be a ‘copy and paste’ version of Hinkley Point C, achieving 20% cost reduction on design and construction. Once operational, it will deliver firm consistent power to six million homes. Hinkley Point C will power the same number. 

Faced with a big task and many uncertainties, it is often asked: “What is Plan B?” The stark truth is that we need a Plan A. As well as the above, this should include: 

  • the government to set a controlling mind, or ‘Energy System Architect’ to bring detailed risk-based engineering judgement and create an optimal, reliable and balanced system   
  • a flexible approach to how our energy system will work – we can’t simply back the winners in the technology race

In the midst of a global crisis, it can be overwhelming to think of future targets, but climate change is not going to fade away and thirty years is not a long time. The UK’s response to huge economic damage post-Covid-19 should be heavily focussed on net zero targets, to build back greener as well as better. Last month the Net Zero all party parliamentary group urged the government to dramatically scale-up net zero in recovery plans. We must act now - the government must act now. 

We’ve released the next paper The Race to Net Zero as part of our Engineering Net Zero analysis and reports. Read more analysis here.

Dr David Cole is market director, power generation assets, nuclear and power at Atkins.