Reaching a target of Net Zero emissions in the UK by 2050 is an ambitious, yet feasible proposition that will require action across all sectors of the economy. Whilst there are many options and pathways that could in theory get us to this target, understanding the ‘best’ approach is something that is open to interpretation.

A new report by the Energy Systems Catapult has attempted to detail some of the credible pathways to Net Zero that might be possible through innovation and scale-up.

Energy Systems Catapult published a new report this week, “Innovating to Net Zero”, which lays out a set of credible pathways for the UK to reach its Net Zero commitment. The pathways reflect consideration of a whole range of implementation approaches and highlight the consequences of differing levels of technological innovation and societal behaviour changes.

Modelling potential pathways

To model the various scenarios, the researchers used Energy System Modelling Environment (ESME), a techno-economic whole system model, to conduct the analysis. This framework allowed them to analyse both the technical and economic performance of the various pathway options.

A particular perk of ESME is that the model is independent of sector interests and can subsequently identify cost-optimised decarbonisation pathways across the whole system. This allows the ESME model to assess the ‘best’ range of pathways from a decarbonisation perspective, without being influenced by any one sector.

Updates were made to the model in order to consider a Net Zero scenario (previously the model was used to assess an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, as per previous government commitments). These updates included the addition of speculative measures, such as more ambitious targets for biomass, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and larger reductions in livestock farming, to name a few.

Options for reaching Net Zero

In total, hundreds of potential pathways were modelled. The analysis included ramping up, or down, different technologies and behaviour changes to assess the impact on achieving Net Zero. These levers allowed the researchers to assess the sensitivities of different pathways and understand the different combinations, interactions and trade-offs of competing decarbonisation options.

The research found that Net Zero by 2050 is possible if the UK supports innovation and scale-up across three essential areas: low carbon technology, land use and lifestyle.

Low Carbon Technology options include:

  • Carbon capture and storage;
  • Hydrogen to supply industry, heat and heavy transport;
  • Increased electricity generation through wind, solar and nuclear; and
  • Major innovation and deployment in electric and heat storage technologies.

Land Use options include:

  • Reduction in livestock production for dairy and meat by 20-50%;
  • Planting 30-50k hectares of new forests each year for carbon sequestration and offsetting; and
  • Increasing the amount, and regular harvesting, of biomass crops for energy.

Lifestyle options include:

  • Reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy products by 20-50%; and
  • Slowing the growth in aviation demand to somewhere between 20% and 60% by 2050, versus 2005 levels.

Key findings from the research

Energy Systems Catapult found that Net Zero presents much fewer viable pathways for the future energy system, compared with achieving an 80% GHG emissions reduction target.

Even with low carbon technologies being successfully deployed, the UK will still need to adopt significant land use and lifestyle changes to reach Net Zero by 2050 (or before).

Depending on the scale of low carbon deployment achieved, much more ambitious options may be required, such as significant reductions in aviation demand growth; increasing forestry creation to up to 50,000 hectares every year; and up to a 50% reduction in meat production

Find out more

For more information, or to discuss requirements or options for your organisation, please see our Net Zero and climate resilience service offers or contact Charles Ffoulkes, Associate Director – Sustainable Food and Farming at ADAS.