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The UK’s Carbon Target: Realistic or Idealistic?

The UK’s Carbon Target: Realistic or Idealistic?

Following the Paris Climate Change agreement of 2015, a lot has been said and discussed about the UK’s carbon targets and how we’re going to be achieving them. This has been further perpetuated following the record summers of 2018 and 2019 across the UK, Europe and the rest of the world as well as the increase in quantity and severity of natural disasters globally. So, what exactly are the UK governments’ commitments and how realistic are they?

The Paris Climate Change summit saw 197 nations and territories ratify their commitments to curbing global temperature rise to ‘well below 2C’ and aim for a temperature rise of only 1.5C. The main method of achieving the curb in global temperature rise is by controlling and decreasing the greenhouse gas emissions that result from each country’s activities. 

The UK has previously pledged to enshrine these targets in law, and the government is working towards net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Net-zero carbon emissions does not necessarily mean no carbon emissions. It allows for ‘carbon off-setting’, which can be interpreted as a ‘get out of jail free card.’ It allows for mitigation should the targets fail to be achieved. However, what will net-zero carbon look like exactly? And is it realistic?

In order for the UK, or any other country, to become a net-zero carbon emitter, a drastic change must take place across all levels of society and industry, such as transport and agriculture, as well as a shift in attitudes and culture.

Taking the transport industry as an example, all vehicles driven in the UK by 2050 will be non-fossil fuel powered which, according to the technology available today, means either electric vehicles or potentially Hydrogen powered vehicles. If we examine the option of electric vehicles, the range available, for today’s battery technology, is limited to around 150-200 miles (Tesla’s aside). This adds complications for anyone planning long haul drives, furthermore the scale of the EV charging infrastructure that will be required can not be overstated.

There are complications with Hydrogen powered vehicles as well, least of which is the very limited availability of financially viable options currently on the market. However, the biggest challenge maybe accessing the Hydrogen required to power the vehicles. Although Hydrogen is abundant across the universe, the majority of Hydrogen on planet Earth is the Hydrogen that makes up water molecules, H2O. The processes that are currently used to separate the Hydrogen from a water molecule are extremely energy intensive, which will not only drive the price of ‘Hydrogen fuel’ up but also risks in-direct emissions from the process.

The transport industry will also require a far wider, cheaper and more dependable public transport network in order to facilitate the movement of individuals. Trains are usually mooted as the optimum solution for this problem. However this overlooks the fact that not all trains across the UK are electric. Furthermore, the high price of railway tickets is a huge deterrent. A quick look at the price of a flight from London to Paris for example costs as low as £25, whilst the equivalent train ticket is closer to the £150 mark in non-peak times. A further issue with the railway infrastructure as it exists currently is the capacity limitations. Bus routes, with the possible exception of London, are also inadequate and do not run regular enough services currently for them to become a viable alternative. Finally, the aviation industry is the most polluting option for transport and currently no real alternatives exist for a cleaner and less polluting substitute.

It is also difficult to comprehend the vast shift in culture and attitude that will be required in order to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. This will cover all walks of daily lives including, but not limited to reversing the trend of consumerism that has become part and parcel of daily lives for the past few decades, introducing a wide remote-working culture and a culture of ‘fix rather than replace’. The point about consumerism is especially poignant as all products and services have an inherent carbon footprint which is usually not fully understood or taken into account.

Take a piece of clothing for example, the cotton used needs to be grown somewhere which might lead to de-forestation. The cotton then needs to be collected and transported to factories that will then use energy to weave and sew the article of clothing. Once complete, it is shipped across the globe to distribution centres where, again, they are collected and transported to your local shops. If you then decide to purchase the clothing online, it is once again collected and transported to your door step. All these steps involve a significant amount of carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. Although this is a basic example, it shows the sheer scale of the amount of carbon that exists in a very basic product. The amount of carbon increases significantly as the products complexity increases.

By reversing the trend of consumerism and, to a certain extent, introducing a culture of ‘fix rather than replace’ the amount of indirect carbon emissions can be decreased. Although it would be difficult to envisage that becoming zero carbon emissions any time soon.

In conclusion, the Paris agreement has forced climate change and greenhouse gas emissions onto the world stage and has shined a light directly at the problem. However the difficulties of achieving the targets must not be downplayed. Buy-in will be required from a large proportion of the population in order to make the net-zero carbon dream a reality as well as personal long-term commitments to decrease  personal individual carbon footprints. As difficult as the journey may seem, the targets set are realistic and must be adhered to in order to guarantee the continued existence of a life-friendly planet for future generations.

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