On Scotland's new net-zero goal

2/05/19 | Blog

The Scottish Government has announced that it will set a new climate change target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2045.

The previous target was for an 80% reduction by 2050, which means we will need to reduce our emissions quicker and more deeply than previously planned.

Scottish Renewables’ Claire Mack welcomed the move in media reports, saying:

“This bold announcement provides industry with more clarity about the scale of the challenge we face and enables us to plan, invest and innovate for the long-term.

“Doing so will allow Scotland to make the most of our abundant natural resources and continue to maximise our share of the jobs and wider social benefits which come from the global shift to a low-carbon energy system.”

But what’s changed?

The decision comes in response to the publication of the Committee on Climate Change’s ‘net-zero emissions’ report to the UK governments.

This report sets out what the UK’s response to the Paris Agreement (with its ambition to keep global warming to below 1.5C) should be. 

Previous UK and Scottish climate change targets were aligned with a global ambition of keeping warming to ‘around 2 degrees’.

However, the scientific evidence on the impacts of climate change is increasingly clear that significant impacts will occur even at two degrees of warming.

Most notably, all low-lying island states (such as the Maldives) are likely to be lost by 2100, as well as the world’s coral reefs.

That’s why the 2015 Paris Agreement included the ambition of keeping emissions ‘well below’ two degrees.

Scotland’s new target will be aligned with this ambition.

The UK Government has not yet endorsed the CCC recommendation, although politicians in Westminster did endorse the setting of a net-zero target for emissions in 2016.

Scotland’s First Minister committed to setting a tougher target, should the CCC recommend it, at the SNP’s spring conference last week, where she also declared a ‘Climate Emergency’.

So what does all this mean?

We now know that our climate change emissions will have to reach zero. 

It might not be possible to do that in all areas, particularly agriculture, and so and reaching zero will likely require the use technologies that can remove carbon from the atmosphere (hence the ‘net’ part of ‘net-zero’). 

The relatively easier-to-decarbonise energy sectors will have to aim for as close to zero emissions as possible. The CCC report gives us a flavour of what this will mean:

The electricity sector will need to secure 95% of its power from renewable and low-carbon sources. Renewable generation could be four times higher than today, taking into account increased demand from electric transport and heat.

Heat in buildings will need to reduce to near zero through the use of heat pumps, hybrid heat pumps and district heating, in conjunction with hydrogen. This effectively rules out a pure hydrogen-for-heat scenario, given the costs of producing ‘green’ hydrogen from renewables rather than ‘blue’ hydrogen from fossil fuels (which could be economically produced at only 80% lower carbon than gas).

All cars and vans will need to be electric by 2050, and the vast majority of HGVs will either be electric, or hydrogen-powered.

Carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) will be crucial in making net-zero emissions possible by removing carbon from industrial processes and the atmosphere, enabling hydrogen to be produced from natural gas.

The report is clear that moving to net-zero requires solutions for the harder-to-decarbonise sectors. It sees a prominent role for hydrogen here, for use as peak source of electricity and heat generation, in HGVs, and for heavy industry. 

Although there are many challenges to be overcome on the road to net-zero emissions, the CCC report is clear that the costs of this action will outweigh the costs of doing nothing.

And as global leaders, Scotland and the UK can capitalise by developing the skills and technologies which the world’s low-carbon industries of the future are going to need.