What's the UK doing to fight climate change?

Updated: Mar 21

We all know that climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) from human activities, and unless we act now we face disaster. This year alone we've seen more extreme weather than ever with Texas freezing over in January, heatwaves in the Artic, Canada and Europe, wildfires in Siberia, Turkey and the US and flash-flooding in Germany, Bavaria, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, China, India, Italy and London. On the plus side, and I mean that extremely loosely, leaders in wealthier countries are finally taking note. Angela Merkel, for example, pledged to 'up the pace in the fight against climate change', in response to the floods in Germany, while our government aims to drop carbon emissions 78% by 2035 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.


But with GHGE being the highest they've ever been, and still rising, it feels like we aren’t doing enough. The UK is 'struggling to keep pace with climate change impacts,' according to the Climate Change Committee, [1] meaning we have to work together quickly and decisively to bring about change.


As hosts of the upcoming UN climate talks (COP26), it's important we lead by example and implement immediate, effective climate action, as only then can we help drive global response. [1] So let's look at how things are shaping up as the UK tries to mitigate climate disaster.


There's a lot to cover in this article so it’s split into the following sections.



Industry

The single largest source of global GHGE comes from industry, whose power stations burn fossil fuels for energy, and use chemical reactions (which release GHGs) to produce goods from raw materials. [2,3] It goes without saying that replacing power stations with wind and solar energy generation will dramatically cut GHGE.


Renewable energy (RE)

Unlike fossil fuels, RE is clean, won't run out, and is readily available in the UK. [4] We have some of the best RE sources in the world, and have tapped into our blustery landscape to become the largest producer of offshore wind energy. [5]


The UK has seen a spectacular rise in renewable technologies in recent years, and coupled with new developments in battery storage, RE can be used even when it's not being generated. This needs to continue if we’re to hit our 2050 net zero carbon goal. [6] But with the pandemic continuing, funding for vital research and development into renewables will likely reduce as we try to make an economic recovery. At this pivotal moment the government and private sector have to ensure continued investment. Four times the amount of offshore wind generation (40GW vs 10GW today) is to be installed in UK waters by 2030, which will significantly reduce emissions from electricity generation (to less than 50gCO2/kWh). [6] Let's hope this happens.


Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS)

CCUS is a group of technologies that collect and store CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel power stations. [7] Waste CO2 is compressed into rock formation and transported by pipeline to secure storage areas (such as deep beneath the sea), where it can't contribute to global warming. These sophisticated technologies have only been adopted by a small number of businesses as the costs of implementing them are too high. If we want to enable the UK to become a global leader for CCUS, and deploy them at scale during the 2030s, as the government plans, the costs have to drop significantly and immediately. [7]


Power-2-X (P2X)

P2X uses surplus RE to generate hydrogen (by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen). Hydrogen doesn’t produce CO2 or other GHGs when burned or used in a hydrogen fuel cell, [7] meaning it could be used to power GHG-free cars and/or be used by industry as a raw material for chemical reactions.


P2X can also combine hydrogen with CO2 (via methanation) to produce synthetic natural gas (used by the grid for heating/cooling, to generate electricity during high-demand periods, or as a fuel for gas engine vehicles) or hydrocarbons (i.e. methanol). [7, 8] Best of all, if atmospheric CO2 is used it'll act as a carbon sink. [8] Although this brilliant system is considered one of the most promising solutions for the storage of RE, managing the grid will be challenging because production is inconstant. [8] Also, the development of high-performing, durable and cost-efficient electrolysis cells and systems are still needed if we are to scale-up this technology. [9]



Business

Businesses play a key role in mitigating climate change by implementing new technologies, and ensuring sustainability.


Remote working

Travelling to- and from work (unless walking or cycling) creates a huge amount of GHGE. But, as COVID-19 has shown, many jobs can be done from home. During colder months, however, it's more efficient to have people in one heated office rather than their individual homes.



Greater use of data centres

Rather than performing energy-intensive applications on local computers, people could offset a significant amount of energy by having applications performed in the cloud. For example, Google and Microsoft have launched cloud gaming platforms that don't require gamers to purchase consoles (the production of which causes emissions) to play them. But data centres are dependent upon quality internet connections, which produce emissions, and for some people good connections aren't available.


Sustainability

As the climate crisis worsens, sustainability has become a mega trend. Companies have realised their day-to-day is important, and to achieve sustainability they must operate without negatively impacting the environment, community, or society. With pressure to adapt coming from competitors and the government (i.e. its net zero ambition), it’s important businesses evolve to retain and attract customers and talent; younger generations expect companies to reflect their sustainability values. [10, 11] Over three quarters (78%) of UK firms surveyed [12] expect sales to grow over the next year as a result of increased sustainability. And 75% now have metrics in place (e.g. measuring energy usage (28%), carbon emissions (21%) and measuring packaging materials and waste (20%)) to measure it (up from 62% in 2019). [12] Three quarters (73%) of British businesses plan to introduce net zero emissions goals to their own operations and across their supply chains. [12] And the goverment, along with that of other countries, is encourageing small to medium-sized businesses to join the SME Climate Hub to help half their GHGE before 2030 and achieve net zero before 2050. [13] Those looking to help offset their emissions through tree-planting can do so with us.


Electric batteries

With ranges increasing and charging times falling, electric vehicles have already gained popularity in the UK, so now interest is turning to business (and to a certain extent industry and homes). [7] Here batteries can be used to store energy (e.g. from rooftop solar panels) until needed in a 'demand-side response’ (DSR) system, which will be crucial in supporting our transition to a low-carbon future. [7] DSR requires energy users to change their habits so demand matches supply without the need for additional generation from power stations. The need for DSR is increasing as more RE is used and traditional power plants are closing (due to carbon taxes and the retirement of ageing stations).


Heat pumps

Heat pumps transport heat from the air or ground outside, to a hot water system inside, using a small amount of electricity. Thought to play a major role in decarbonising heating, which accounts for over a third of the UK’s GHGE, 19 million would need to be installed to achieve 2050's net zero target. [14] Even though this technology is being rolled out in other countries, the UK's lagging behind due to expense (gas-fired boilers are cheaper), and the limitations of our electrical grid (it'd need to be expanded to facilitate the extra capacity heat pumps require). [14] We need to address these barriers if we're to reach our climate goals.



Academia

Universities play a huge role in climate research, and a growing number are implementing climate change programmes for students. Many have also joined the COP26 Universities Network, ahead of this year's meeting, with the aim to understand the climate crisis, push it up the political agenda, and help lead global change. [15] The sheer scale of action being taken across these institutions is impressive, with new ideas to reduce the impact of GHGE constantly evolving.


Refreezing and greening

Cambridge University has suggested refreezing the poles by spraying tiny drops of salt into the sky to help reflect heat radiation back into space. Another suggestion has been 'greening' the oceans, by encouraging plant and algal growth to help absorb CO2. This, however, could cause disrupt the oceans' ecosystems.



Community

UK law states that by 2050 any remaining CO2 emissions will have to be compensated for by tree planting. [16] And with so many communities springing into action around country, we'll look at the biggest initiatives here.


Woodland Trust

The Trust aims to plant 20 million trees by 2030, and offers individuals the option to buy saplings from their website. Saplings can be planted by the individual, or by the Trust on their behalf, and, twice a year (March and November) schools and community groups can apply for free saplings.


This a great way to get groups of people together to inspire positivity while creating new woodland. The only downside is that saplings need protection from rabbits and deer who'll eat them, and can easily get trampled by people and/or animals. They also need time to grow and capture carbon at the rates required, and individuals involved need to know which tree species are suitable for their planting area. It can also be difficult to gain permission from the landowner/council to plant in the first place (I know from experience).


Green Up Britain

We are a non-profit company that offers individuals the opportunity to plant trees (that can be bought here) as part of an organised event at an approved planting site with correct tree species. Our trees are over a metre tall meaning they're already quite efficient at capturing carbon. Each tree comes with protection from rabbits and deer, and will be regularly watered, if needed, until it's established. This not only guarantees the legacy of the trees for those who've planted them, but ensures they're enjoyed by people and wildlife for decades/centuries.


Trees can also be bought and planted on an individuals' behalf, or a donation can be made to buy trees for future projects. In addition we offer corporate planting, with smaller (whip) trees (1-metre tall but have very few leaves), enabling businesses and smaller groups, such as nurseries, schools and social groups, to plant trees on mass. See here for details.


The Royals

2022 will be the Queen's Platinum Jubilee (her 70th year on the thrown), and to mark the occasion she's asked the UK to plant trees from October (the start of the planting season) through to March next year (the end of the planting season). Prince Charles announced the campaign, termed 'Tree-bilee', via the Royal Family Instagram account, and encouraged everyone to get involved. The Queen's planted over 1,500 trees across the world (on official duties) during her rein, but back on British soil a total of 70 ancient woodlands and 70 veteran trees will be protected in her honour.


Climate Action Fund

A £100 million fund that supports communities across the UK to take action on climate change, the Carbon Action Fund was set up by The National Lottery in 2019. People can take the lead tackling the escalating emergency by applying for funding for community projects. See here for details.


Rebellion

Better public information is needed if we’re to gain a stronger response to climate change from society. The more understandable and relatable the information, the more people will make climate-positive choices. And two individuals, along with the media and activists, have played a huge role in the UK's understanding of our rapidly changing world.


Sir David Attenborough has brought the natural world to millions with countless documentaries over his 60-year career. More recently he's been instrumental in opening our eyes to the climate crisis. Climate Change - The Facts highlights the most pressing global issues, whilst A Life on Our Planet recounts his life and loss of wild places.


Attenbourough's now focused on speaking to world leaders to try spur them into action before it's too late. He will be a key member at COP26 meeting in November.


Greta Thunberg, a Swedish activist who to founded 'Fridays for Future' in 2018, has worked hard to address climate change. Thunberg's inspired younger Brits to stand up to politicians through protests and school strikes.


Documentaries & news broadcasts

While there have been some great documentaries and news features on climate change from the BBC and Channel 4 News, respectively, Sky News have been the first to dedicate a daily programme to it. This plus the sharing of information on social media sites has created a movement, mainly followed by the younger generation, to put pressure on the government and big business to reduce emissions.


Extinction Rebellion (XR)

An international movement that uses non-violent action in an attempt to halt mass extinction, [17] XR has helped push the government’s failure to act on the climate emergency into the public eye. As a group of people who are holding the powerful to account, it’s vital we take a moment to acknowledge that radical action is needed to avoid inaction from our leaders.



Individuals

If we all went vegan the world's food-related emissions would drop 70% by 2050, [18] and fortunately the number of people identifying as plant-based has increased exponentially in the UK. This is due to increased awareness around animal agriculture and its associated GHGE, health benefits of the diet, and animal cruelty. Two British institutions have played a key role in encouraging us to try and/or adopt a plant-based lifestyle.


Veganuary is a non-profit organisation that encourages people and businesses to go vegan for January and beyond. Year-on-year, the number of people joining the challenge is growing, as is the range of vegan products available. This work goes a long way to help protect our environment, prevent animal suffering, and improve our health.


The Vegan Society was founded 75 years ago and focuses on making veganism easier and healthier. Currently they're campaigning for a sustainable plant-based farming system for our health and the planet.



Staycations

It's worth noting that as more people become aware of their carbon footprint, and with the pandemic and its associated travel restrictions, an increasing number of us are opting to staycation this year. This will hugely reduce our GHGE from air travel, and only time will tell if this trend will continue.



Government

As always government promises have been made that have proven difficult to keep. For example, the centre of its 'build back greener' promise [from the economic loss of pandemic] was a £1.5bn green homes scheme, which was scrapped a few months after launch. Abandonment of the programme (which offered homeowners grants to put in insulation or low-carbon heating) leaves the UK without a plan for tackling one of our biggest sources of GHGE. [19] And if we don’t have programmes to tackle this we have little hope of meeting net zero. While we're making great progress in some areas, a lot more needs to be done, but let's look at what the government has (or has almost) achieved below.

Hosting COP26

The Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius vs pre-industrial levels, and establish a climate neutral world by 2050. It was the first legally binding international treaty on climate change, and was adopted in 2015 at COP21. [20]


Attendees of COP21 signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and at COP26 the same leaders, climate researchers and policy-makers will meet in Glasgow to accelerate action towards the goals of this and the Agreement.


Global action needs to increase if we are to achieve these goals, yet in the years since enforcement we've seen an increase in low-carbon solutions. For example the UK: [5]

  • Is the fastest country in the G20 to decarbonise its economy since 2000

  • Has achieved >40% cut in emissions since 1990 (the fastest rate in the G7), and is on track to achieve a 68% reduction by 2030

  • Is the first major economy to pass laws for net zero carbon emissions by 2050

  • Has a fast-growing low carbon economy

  • Has a 25 Year Environment Plan to address air quality, nature recovery, waste and resource efficiency

There's still a lot to be done, but COP26 will be key to making sure we succeed in tackling and adapting to the climate crisis. I'm excited to see the positive actions that will come from this important meeting.


Build Back Greener

The government has vowed that every UK home will be powered with by RE within the decade, as part of its economic 'green' recovery following the pandemic. It's increased the 2030 target for offshore wind energy from 30- to 40GW (in a drive to meet our climate targets and create green jobs) as well as increase hydrogen production and infrastructure; CCUS and low-carbon synthetic fuels for aviation. [21] But if the UK is to be a true global leader and bring about a green industrial revolution, we need to see a massive increase in investment as well as a commitment to hit net zero before 2050.


Industrial Energy Transformation Fund (IETF)

In 2020, the government launched the new IETF to help businesses install RE technologies within their industrial processes. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.


Environment bill

The Environment Bill 2020 sets out how we plan to protect and improve the environment in the UK following Brexit (after which the UK longer has to consider EU law and its existing environmental protections). The Environment Bill aims to replace EU legislation and embed environmental accountability into any new legislation passed. But progress has been delayed by the pandemic. As it stands, the Bill is being reviewed by the House of Commons but hasn't been passed, which is particularly disappointing given that we're hosting COP26 in a matter of weeks.


The Woodland Carbon Guarantee

A £50 million scheme, launched in November 2020, The Woodland Carbon Guarantee was founded to boost tree-planting rates across the UK. This scheme encourages farmers and landowners to plant trees and create new woodland (that complies with UK Forestry Standard requirements) in return for payments as these trees grow. By selling 'Woodland Carbon Units' to the Government, landowners will benefit from new income, reduce flood risk, increase soil conservation and boost biodiversity. As trees take time to grow and store carbon, we need to plant them now if we want to reach net zero emissions by 2050, so I'm hoping the scheme takes hold. [22]


Final thoughts

The UK is the first major economy to legislate for net zero GHGE by 2050. However, there are doubts as to which technologies can be relied upon to achieve this goal. This is partly due to the long timeframe required to move ideas through technical and commercial development, as well as the costs associated with them. [7] A recent report has found that CCUS and hydrogen cannot currently be relied on to help the UK meet its climate change targets because they'll not be running at scale by 2050. [7, 22]


Moreover, decarbonising entire economies means tackling sectors where emissions are difficult to reduce, such as shipping, trucks, aviation, heavy industries like steel, cement and chemicals, and agriculture.


The net zero challenge calls for a step change in technology innovation in critical areas such as enhancing energy efficiency, making low-carbon electricity the main source for heating buildings and powering vehicles, capturing, storing and utilising CO2 before it escapes into the atmosphere, and realising the potential of clean hydrogen across industry. This, of course, needs to be coupled with tree planting and re-wilding to reduce carbon emissions and help protect against habitat and species loss.


COP26 will be interesting, and possibly the most talked about, climate conference of this century. As Sir Attenborough put it, "the moment of crisis has come" and "the future of humanity and indeed all life on earth depends on us".


Urgent decisions must be made now if the national 2050 net zero target is to be met. This is the decisive decade for tackling climate emergency. And I hope we make the right choices.


References

  1. https://www.theccc.org.uk

  2. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions

  3. https://globalecoguy.org/the-three-most-important-graphs-in-climate-change-e64d3f4ed76

  4. https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/challenges/renewable-energy/

  5. https://ukcop26.org

  6. https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Progress-in-reducing-emissions-2021-Report-to-Parliament.pdf

  7. https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/climate-change-solutions-the-role-of-technology/

  8. https://www.sccer-mobility.ch/Joint_Activities/Power-to-Gas

  9. https://iopscience.iop.org/journal/2515-7655/page/focus-on-power-to-x-technologies

  10. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/ready-and-enabled/sustainability/increasing-spend/

  11. https://carbonneutralbritain.org/pages/become-a-carbon-neutral-business

  12. https://www.about.hsbc.co.uk/news-and-media/uk-firms-expect-focus-on-sustainability-to-deliver-growth

  13. https://smeclimatehub.org/sme-climate-commitment/

  14. https://committees.parliament.uk/work/684/technological-innovations-and-climate-change-heat-pumps/

  15. https://www.eauc.org.uk/cop26_universities_network_march_briefing

  16. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-51389404

  17. extenctionrebelion.uk

  18. https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/what-would-world-look-if-everyone-went-vegan

  19. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/mar/05/boris-johnson-failing-on-uk-plan-to-reach-net-zero-say-mps

  20. https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

  21. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-ten-point-plan-for-a-green-industrial-revolution/title

  22. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-launches-new-scheme-to-boost-tree-planting

  23. https://ukfires.org/absolute-zero/



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