The UK government has established a 10-point-plan for a ‘green recovery’ following the Covid-19 pandemic. Many targets in this plan involve the development and mass-delivery of ‘low-carbon’ energy solutions to help combat the climate crisis. How reliable are such solutions, and is the government relying too heavily on the industrial tech sector to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050?
A vast number of scientific and industrial technologies are being developed to slow the rate of climate change. Governments worldwide are increasingly adopting policies which implement the use of these ‘green’ technologies, as the national commitments made at the 2015 Paris Agreement are still not enough to limit global warming to a maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
Such measures can be seen in the UK Government’s recently established 10-point plan for a ‘green recovery’. The overall premise of this plan was summarised by Boris Johnson, who promises to use the UK’s “extraordinary powers of invention” to “repair the economic damage” brought about by Covid-19. In this plan, the government pledges to quadruple offshore wind capacity, drive the growth of low-carbon hydrogen, deliver new and advanced nuclear power, and invest in carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS) technologies.
In this plan, the government pledges to quadruple offshore wind capacity, drive the growth of low-carbon hydrogen, deliver new and advanced nuclear power, and invest in carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS) technologies.
While many applaud such plans as a step in the right direction, a number of concerns have been expressed regarding the government’s heavy reliance on technology to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The director general of the National Trust, Hilary McGrady, stated, “technology alone can’t cut emissions and restore nature. The government will need to follow this up with an ambitious pledge to cut emissions by 2030 in line with the Paris agreement.” Rebecca Newsom, Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, critiqued, “it’s a shame the prime minister remains fixated on other speculative solutions, such as nuclear and hydrogen from fossil fuels, that will not be taking us to zero emissions anytime soon, if ever.”
The concerns raised seem highly reasonable. Regarding nuclear power, the government intends to deploy the UK’s first small modular reactors (SMRs) by the early 2030s. The problem, however, is that whilst there are about 50 SMR designs globally, only one is currently in operation– and it’s unlikely that this model would be licensed for use in a country such as the UK. Certification proves to be a significant obstacle within the nuclear industry, since regulators often have to issue licenses based on developer proposals, instead of on plants in operation. Moreover, the costs of such reactors also remain expensive. This is because the low global demand for SMRs, alongside great diversity in their designs, could mean that no vendor will likely achieve the level of mass production required for low-cost manufacture. Additionally, it is likely that SMRs won’t be produced in substantial-enough numbers by the mid-2030s, by which time UK electricity must be carbon-free in order to meet climate targets.
Additionally, the government’s investment of £240 million into hydrogen fuel, which is still a long way off from mass production, is similarly concerning. Because hydrogen is currently primarily created as a by-product of natural gas extraction, such a method of supply would still support fossil-fuel companies in their exploration and production of hydrocarbon fuels. Unless it was ensured that all investments were made into technologies that generate hydrogen via other means (such as the generation of fuel from water), it would be impossible to categorise this hydrogen production as carbon neutral. Moreover, the government’s targets regarding hydrogen production don’t even begin to match up to the large-scale changes that need to be made to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Intentions such as “set out plans for a possible pilot hydrogen town by the end of the decade” and “lower carbon heating and cooking by up to 7%” will only marginally cut the UK’s total emissions. The government instead needs to focus on solutions that will have a much bigger impact in reaching climate-related goals.
while these ‘low-carbon’ electricity sources will accelerate our path to a carbon-neutral future, their respective disadvantages mean that such technologies cannot be relied upon to provide a silver-bullet solution to the climate crisis.
As summarised above, much of the government’s recruitment of emerging scientific and industrial technologies to reach carbon-neutrality is unreliable. This is because these ‘solutions’ don’t come without significant disadvantages – whether these involve costs, their still-experimental stages of development, or their smaller (but nevertheless consequential) environmental impacts. This is exactly why the Council for Science and Technology (CST) warned the Prime Minister not to “rely on the invention of new, breakthrough technologies to achieve net zero by 2050, though many will arise and prove their worth.” Even the advancement of wind-power, which has been labelled as a ‘proven’ technology, brings its own challenges. In order to increase offshore wind capacity by 2030 such that it can generate more power than our homes use today, it will be necessary to grant project contracts and seabed licences at a record speed. Moreover, environmentalists have demanded for much better coordination and planning in the creation of these dozens of new wind farms in order to prevent the disruption of fragile aquatic ecosystems present within UK waters.
As a result, while these ‘low-carbon’ electricity sources will accelerate our path to a carbon-neutral future, their respective disadvantages mean that such technologies cannot be relied upon to provide a silver-bullet solution to the climate crisis. Most crucially, as outlined by the CST, to truly succeed in fulfilling climate ambitions, the government must “make the challenging policy decisions required to drive change across the whole system.”
However, while such necessary changes are called for, the government leaves much doubt as to its true commitment to a carbon-neutral society. The current Cumbria coal mine controversy displays this transparently: the mine, which will extract coal from beneath the Irish Sea for use in steel production until 2049, has recently been granted planning permission. This proves catastrophic for multiple reasons. Firstly, the burning of coking coal (coal used in the steel industry) must be ceased by 2035 if we are to meet our climate targets- and yet, the government hasn’t announced any plans to phase out such coal use in the future. Secondly, approving a new mine would heavily undermine the UK’s leadership in the UN COP26 climate conference (held in Glasgow later this year), which is regarded to be the most significant climate event since the 2015 Paris Agreement. Clear opposition is summed up in the words of Stanley Johnson, the father of the Prime Minister, who says: “How can we ask other countries to bring their climate reduction programmes when we are now reopening the whole coal argument here in Britain?” The blatant hypocrisy that approving a coal mine displays after promising to tackle the climate crisis is frankly indefensible.
To truly tackle climate change, the government must implement more policies that divert attention away from the industrial tech sector, placing more responsibility upon sectors across all areas of the economy.
Similarly, the government’s halted plans to cease overseas fossil fuel funding and failure to meet its own targets on growing new woodlands by 71% only serves to diminish confidence in the government’s ability to fulfill its climate ambitions. With urgent action immediately required to limit global warming, investing in technology and innovation to solve the climate crisis- while repeatedly coming short on meeting other targets- is not the answer. To truly tackle climate change, the government must implement more policies that divert attention away from the industrial tech sector, placing more responsibility upon sectors across all areas of the economy. Most importantly, the government must make itself more accountable in its role of driving the country towards a net-zero carbon future, and it must fully commit itself to tacking the climate crisis, instead of consistently falling short on targets and failing to prioritise climate issues across all of its committments.
Art by Nadja Vitorovic