Reaching net zero carbon emissions

In June 2019, the UK became one of the first major economies of the G7 to legislate in favour of a legally binding target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, joining others such as Sweden, New Zealand and Japan.

This governmental measure took place at the start of what needs to be a “decade of action” in the 2020s if global goals to limit rising temperatures are to be met, and follows the suggestions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and by the Climate Change Committee (CCC). Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions should reach net-zero by 2070 to limit warming to 1.5C degree, with CO₂ at net-zero by 2050.

There are two different routes to achieving net-zero, which work in tandem: reducing existing emissions and actively removing greenhouse gases. A gross-zero target would mean reducing all emissions to zero. This is not realistic, so instead the net-zero target recognises that there will be some emissions but that these need to be fully offset, predominantly through natural carbon sinks such as oceans and forests.

When the amount of carbon emissions produced are cancelled out by the amount removed, the UK will be a net-zero emitter. The lower the emissions, the easier this becomes.

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Where is the UK now?

In terms of meeting the 2050 objective, between 1990 and 2020 CO₂ emissions in the UK have fallen by 44%. Almost all of the fall in emissions between 1990 and 2019 have been due to major changes in just three areas, in particular from the energy sector, which has decarbonised by 65.5%.

Much slower progress has been made on the gas used to heat homes and businesses, which by 2019 made up a fifth of the UK’s emissions. Indeed the gas used to heat the majority of buildings in the UK will remain a major issue on the road to net-zero. UK government projections show the country will miss its legally binding carbon targets later this decade.

The first (2008-12) and the second carbon budget (2013-17) have been met and the UK is on track to meet the third (2018-22) but is not on track to meet the fourth, which covers the period 2023-27 or the fifth, which covers (2028-32). To meet the UK’s carbon budgets, carbon emissions would need to fall by another 31% by 2030, whereas government projections expect just a 10% cut, based on current policies.

In 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic had a major impact on greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions, in particular, have been estimated to have fallen by a record-breaking 10.7% from the previous year primarily due to a large reduction in road transport during lockdowns and reduction in business activity.

This was the largest percentage reduction since at least 1990, but it is likely to rebound this year or next as the economy recovers. Conversely, CO₂ emissions from the residential sector increased by 1.8% as more people stayed at home.

In 2020, the residential sector emitted 67.7 mega-tonnes of CO₂, representing 20,8% of all carbon dioxide emissions. The main source of emissions in the domestic sector comes from the use of natural gas for heating and for cooking.

UK Government attempts to tackle household carbon emissions

During the last couple of decades, the UK Government has tried to implement different national policies to improve its chances of meeting the net-zero carbon goal by 2050.

The domestic sector in particular has been the target of two initiatives aimed at promoting the adoption of energy efficiency measures by homeowners: the Green Deal and the Green Homes Grant. Both have failed to meet expectations and have not achieved the hoped results.

The Green Deal was initiated by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in 2013 under the 2011 Energy Act and it was a ‘Pay-as-you-save’ type scheme, where loans are taken out to pay for energy efficiency measures and repaid over time from the financial savings created by these measures.

There were 45 different types of improvements available under the Green Deal, ranging from loft and cavity wall insulation, innovative hot water systems and condensing boilers to more costly measures such as solar thermal energy or solid wall insulation.

However, both the design and the implementation of the policy were criticised: the interest rate on the loan to householders was too high, there were no targets or grants and the program did not persuade householders that energy efficiency measures are worth paying for. The scheme was abandoned in July 2015 officially because the take-up was too low.

The Green Homes Grant was launched in September 2020 and offered households grants of up to £5,000 or £10,000 to put in insulation or low-carbon heating. Due in large part to a scarcity of qualified installers, the scheme struggled from the start and was scrapped after just six months, reaching only 10% of the 600,000 homes the Chancellor had promised would be improved.

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How you can improve the energy performance of your home

Because of the substantial contribution of the residential sector to the production of active carbon emissions, it is logical to assume the importance of interventions within this area. An effective and convenient way in which every person can enhance the likelihood of achieving the net-zero target is by becoming aware of the environmental footprint of our own homes and committing ourselves to improve it. While it can be hard sometimes to come up with our own ideas, we can ask for help from local community organisations and experts.

The Warmer Sussex programme (part of RetrofitWorks, a not-for-private-profit cooperative of retrofit experts and local tradespeople) was launched in October 2019 with development funding won from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as one of six pilot projects across the UK.

The service makes use of an innovative digital Plan Builder, an online full-home survey tailored to your property in which all you have to do is provide your address and postcode.

The proposed solutions relate to all the aspects of the building: roofs, walls and floor, windows and doors, heating. Estimates of costs, annual savings and carbon emissions avoided are provided as well.

Finally, you will be able to build your own plan choosing the personalised energy efficiency improvements you want and Warmer Sussex will help you realise it: their Retrofit Coordinators will visit your home, ensure the improvements are suitable, provide technical expertise and work with a network of vetted contractors to obtain quotes and oversee the work.


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