Three years on from the publication of the groundbreaking Absolute Zero, now one of the top 10 most-downloaded documents from any UK university on record, the lead author, Professor Julian Allwood, returns to the data to ask: does UK FIRES stand by their prediction?
Absolute Zero was written in November 2019 with the aim of creating a realistic pathway to net zero. Looking at current plans set out by the UK's Climate Change Act, the authors expressed concern that plans included an over-reliance on 'breakthrough technologies' - technologies which may exist, but which do not yet exist at scale.
The UK’s Climate Change Act contains two “escape” words: it discusses “net” emissions and targets on those that occur on our “territory.” However, in reality, apart from planting more trees, we don’t have any short-term options to remove emissions from the atmosphere, and the level of CCS which currently operates is insignificant. Furthermore, shutting factories in the UK doesn’t make any change to global emissions, and may make them worse if we import goods from countries with less efficient processes. Public concern about the climate is too well informed to be side-lined by political trickery on definitions. In writing this report, the authors therefore assumed that:
• the target of zero emissions is absolute - there are no negative emissions options or meaningful “carbon offsets.” Absolute Zero means zero emissions;
• the UK is responsible for all emissions caused by its purchasing, including imported goods, international flights and shipping.
That means that to reach zero emissions, we need to electrify everything - and in order to do that, we're going to need a lot of non-emitting technology. The report states that if we only used electricity, delivering all the transport, heat and goods we use in the UK today, we would require three times more electricity than we use today and if we expand non-emitting supply as quickly as possible, we can only deliver about 60% of this requirement. The conclusion of Absolute Zero is that we need to reduce our demand for energy.
Three years on Professor Allwood has written a blog responding to the most common criticism received by the group: Is this prediction about the rate of expansion for non-emitting electricity supply too pessimistic?
In short, he concludes, no.
On CCS, the Absolute Zero report reflected the reality that to date no such technologies were operating in the UK, and therefore forecast that by 2050 we should continue to anticipate that they would not exist. So far, the prediction on that front has been absolutely correct.
On the expansion of non-emitting electricity supply, Absolute Zero in fact may have been overly optimistic. So far, it would seem, the approach of reducing demand for energy significantly continues to be the safest - and only realistic - road to zero emissions.
Read the full blog on the UK FIRES website.