How can the UK step up to the 2050 net zero challenge?

As the UK contemplates reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, companies and consumers will need to rethink long-standing habits to tackle climate change.

May 10, 2019

Amid growing calls for businesses and governments to step up their response to climate change, the move to make ‘net zero’ a widespread reality is taking on a new urgency. 

In the UK, the publication of a report by Government advisors has put the country at the forefront of global ambitions to slash carbon emissions. It calls for targets for the UK to achieve net zero carbon emissions – meaning that businesses, consumers and the built environment will need to generate as much energy as they use - by 2050.

Cities across the UK have already signalled their intention to reach the carbon reduction target but the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) says the UK as a whole can hit the target in 2050, if the Government invests in a net zero vision and consumers and businesses play their part in implementing change.

One suggestion is to bring forward new laws requiring all new vehicles sold in the UK to have zero emissions from 2040 to 2030. This would essentially replace petrol and diesel vehicles with electric and alternatively fuelled versions. 

But, Ollie Saunders, Lead Director, Alternatives at JLL UK, cautions more electric vehicle charging points are needed across the UK to encourage uptake. “This will support adoption and remove the anxiety of the driving public about being able to access electricity as easily as they can access petrol stations,” he adds.

Environmental concerns

Businesses are starting to see green measures as an opportunity to improve their operations and increase efficiency. Real estate companies, like Hammerson want to be net positive by 2030 through steps such as a greater use of renewable energy and minimising waste, while more building owners and companies leasing space are looking at how sustainable innovations like energy storage can better meet their energy needs.

“By setting targets to become net positive, leading real estate companies such as Hammerson and Majid al Futtaim are showing that achieving zero emissions before 2050 is not just achievable but makes good business sense,” says Darren Berman, JLL UK Lead Director, Upstream Sustainability Services.

Yet for all the steps being taken by individual companies, more still needs to be done. Bank of England governor Mark Carney, has warned the financial sector needs to consider the impact of climate change when making every investment decision.

“It’s not about companies acting in isolation,” says Sophie Walker, UK Head of Sustainability. “We need to see sectors, such as our own, committing wholeheartedly to net zero carbon and then collaborating across the supply chain and between companies to implement low-carbon technologies at scale and at pace to drive long-term change.

“At the same time, there needs to be an ongoing shift in the mindset of the public and private sector – and consumers – to build momentum and to ensure the 2050 target becomes a reality.”

A green future

So, what can be done? The CCC suggests bio-degradable waste should no longer be sent to landfill after 2025, while buildings will need to be better insulated and thermostats will need to be turned down. It estimates the cost will be between 1-2 percent of national GDP a year.

Walker says adopting the UK Green Building Council’s framework, which aims to help the construction and property industry transition new and existing buildings to net zero carbon by 2050 and integrating into investment plans, will also help.

Philip Hirst, Director in JLL’s Upstream Sustainability Services, says the UK has already invested in green energy solutions such as wind, solar and biomass power and this, together with a reduction in renewables costs all makes the 2050 target achievable. “Many landlords have already switched to 100 percent green energy supplies,” he says.

In future, more UK commercial and residential buildings could become energy providers, installing solar power technology to capture energy and sell excess back to the grid, in line with methods being used in Australia. Futhermore, Hirst says there is growing opportunity for assets to become energy independent, and less reliant on the grid because they have their own energy supplies.

New targets such as zero waste will also become more of a priority – and new solutions will be needed.

“As carbon emissions reach close to zero for buildings in operation, reducing the “embodied” carbon in the materials used to construct new buildings becomes increasingly important,” he says.

As warnings mount on the scale of climate change, it becomes increasingly clear what needs to be done. The big question, however, is how recommendations can work in reality and make a real difference.