University of Reading: Net Zero Plans ‘Infused With Technological Optimism’ – Expert Comment

Professor Chris Hilson, Director of the Reading Centre for Climate and Justice at the University of Reading comments on the launch of the UK’s Net Zero plan. Professor Hilson said:

“In the run up to COP26, Boris Johnson’s international rallying cry was ‘coal, cars, cash and trees’. The Government’s long-awaited domestically-focused Net Zero Strategy can perhaps best be described as ‘Heat pumps, hydrogen, and hope’.

“The Net Zero Strategy is designed to pull together the Government’s many recent individual climate change strategies, such as Heat and Buildings, and Hydrogen, in a single policy document that shows how it plans to achieve its net zero climate targets overall.

“As many have noted, targets are the easy part. What has been missing up until now is a clear pathway for how those targets will be achieved. Those looking for a singular, planned pathway will be disappointed. Instead, the Government places an emphasis on ‘optionality’ and the role of markets and capitalism to come up with solutions, presenting a range of scenarios for what technologies may in the end be deployed by companies and organisations. These include heat pumps or hydrogen boilers for home heating.

“The UK Emissions Trading Scheme and its carbon price is set out as one of the key market-based policy levers to incentivise businesses to make green choices, accompanied by state subsidies for things like carbon capture and storage, heat pump installation, and nuclear power.

“Date signals to the market such as bans on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 and an aim to phase out gas boilers by 2035 also play an important role. However, much of the heavy lifting is expected to be done via major private investment from the financial markets, as already seen in areas like offshore wind.

“Despite its emphasis on markets, the Strategy also has an industrial policy feel to it. It aims to build on what it describes as the UK’s ‘core strengths’, including a world-leading market for offshore wind, a large oil and gas sector, and the City of London as a centre for green finance. That oil and gas sector could end up being at the heart of ‘grey’ hydrogen supply and also carbon storage under the North Sea. The heavy lifting finance will come from the City.

“There is also an emphasis on ‘levelling up’, with the strategy setting out how many of the new green industrial jobs will be created in parts of the country that need it most.

“But it is very much a strategy avowedly built on capitalist business as usual. There is no ‘hair-shirted’ degrowth or cutting back on things like meat, flying or car driving here. Instead, the strategy is infused with a technological optimism that the market will deliver the solutions that we need to be able to carry on with life as it was pre-Covid.

“The emphasis is on gain – we will live in warmer homes, breathing cleaner air – rather than pain. We must of course hope that the Prime Minister’s optimism turns out to be justified here. Markets take time to respond, and some technologies, like carbon capture and storage, may never be viable at scale.

“The question is whether we have that much time to make the necessary cuts in emissions. If the technologies don’t appear by a certain date, then we may all be forced to swallow some more painful medicine.”