Sussex energy experts respond to UK Government's major net zero policy announcements
By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Wednesday, 20 October 2021
This week the Government has made major announcements regarding its net zero policies in the run up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) being held in Glasgow at the start of next month.
The Net Zero Strategy outlines the Government’s decarbonisation pathways to net zero by 2050 and includes plans for the construction of nuclear reactors, new rules requiring car makers to sell a proportion of clean vehicles every year and further funding for tree-planting and peat restoration.
The Heat and Buildings Strategy involves proposals for grants allowing residents to replace gas boilers with heat pumps and new requirements for mortgage lenders to disclose the energy performance of their portfolio.
Here is how our energy experts have responded to the latest policy announcements.
"Supporting heat pump uptake appears to be an easy solution for our net zero targets. With heat pumps, we are switching from polluting gas boilers to green electricity powered heating (and cooling) sources.
"However, converting to heat pumps is just one piece of the puzzle. In many cases, home energy retrofits will be required before it is even possible to fit a heat pump. Retrofits make homes warmer and make it so that much less heat is needed to feel comfortable.
"Supporting retrofits means that the government will be helping the public to use less energy overall. However, this means that energy suppliers will be selling much less energy. This is problematic for suppliers because their business models demand ever-increasing profits. More energy efficient homes means less energy is sold and profits decrease. Unless suppliers can come up with creative means to shift their business models, they have every reason to oppose – or at least not support – incentives for energy efficiency measures.
"In general, this government is very supportive of measures that increase growth in new areas (i.e. in heat pumps). However, they are much more hesitant to introduce measures that will significantly decrease overall profitability for energy companies.
"While energy retrofits will provide tens of thousands of jobs in the trades sector, the net result of energy efficiency will be an overall decrease in energy use – and that is bad news for energy companies, and likely for overall national economic growth figures.
"Unfortunately, global experts agree that we have no hope of meeting even a 2oC target without huge decreases in energy use. That unavoidably requires support for home energy retrofits, regardless of how it appears on economic balance sheets."
Dr Max Lacey-Barnacle, Research Fellow in Just Transitions in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said: "This Net Zero Strategy appears to show a Conservative government that is more than happy to ignore the findings of its own research into what the general public want from a future Net Zero economy.
"In September 2020, the UK’s first Citizens Climate Assembly published its findings, drawing on a statistically representative group of 108 citizens from across the UK. In those findings, it was made clear that ‘Large majorities of assembly members ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that three ways of generating electricity should be part of how the UK gets to net zero: Offshore wind (95%); Solar power (81%); Onshore wind (78%)’ while in strong contrast, ‘Assembly members were much less supportive of bioenergy, nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage’.
"Despite promising 40GW of offshore wind by 2030, today’s Net Zero Strategy has announced that before the end of this parliament, a new large-scale nuclear power plant will be built. In addition, £120 million of funding has been announced for a ‘Future Nuclear Enabling Fund’, while two multi-billion pound carbon capture and storage schemes will be fast-tracked in England in order to be operational by the middle of the decade.
"This strategy shows that the core findings of the UK’s Citizens Climate Assembly have not made a significant impact on government policy for Net Zero at all.”
Valentin Vogl, from the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said:
"The government's requirement of a 63 – 76% reduction in carbon emissions by 2035 from industry clearly could not be met by the UK steel industry in its current position.
"Integrated steel mills such as the UK’s two sites in Scunthorpe and Port Talbot operate on major investment cycles. Every 15-20 years, production is stopped to undertake a large investment, the main purpose of which is to reline the blast furnace.
"To achieve carbon emission reductions of 63% and net-zero in the long-term, the UK industry has two options: carbon capture and storage (CCS) or steel production based on a mixture of recycling and hydrogen. These technologies can only be implemented during a production stoppage.
"If a single blast furnace in the UK is relined without implementing either of these measures, the whole industrial sector carbon reduction target is at risk considering steel is the largest industrial emitter in the UK.
"Consequently, the Scunthorpe and Port Talbot sites urgently need roadmaps to chart the path to the sectoral targets for 2035 and net-zero, respectively.
"These roadmaps must address several key issues:
- Further blast furnace relinings need to be avoided and could be considered for regulation/banning. The next investment in Scunthorpe and Port Talbot must be green.
- Taking into account the long history of decline and struggle in the British steel industry, large investment will need to be lifted in relatively short time.
- Great potential exists in increasing the recycling of steel scrap. The UK today exports large amounts of scrap which could be used domestically, which would reduce the energy consumption of the sector and ease pressure on other energy-intensive economic activities. Electric arc furnaces, which the European steel industry prefers over implementing carbon capture and storage on blast furnaces, can handle both scrap and primary iron in varying shares.
- A mostly scrap based steel industry would keep jobs and skills in steel communities while reducing energy consumption and using scrap that is today exported from the UK.
"With COP26 on the horizon, the UK government faces what could be the last opportunity to join the club of countries that seriously aim to decarbonise their steel industries. If the UK instead fails to make the next investments green, it risks missing the newly announced 2035 targets from the outset."