Net Zero needs zero-carbon infrastructure

The real proof will be in the pudding: actual investments being made, planning approvals for Net Zero infrastructure and that infrastructure being built.

  • Updated: 29 October, 2019
  • Author: Mike Hemsley, Senior Power Analyst at the Committee on Climate Change

Mike Hemsley leads the CCC's work on power sector decarbonisation, having joined the Committee on Climate Change five years ago. Here he sets out thoughts on the infrastructure requirements for Net Zero.

Net Zero needs zero-carbon infrastructure

In May 2019, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommended that the UK should get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. By June 2019, the Minister of State, Chris Skidmore MP had signed Net Zero into law, becoming the first major economy to do so. This target is ambitious. Getting there will require major changes to the way we heat our homes, travel and live our lives. It also requires an integral role for infrastructure.

Is Net Zero realistic?

Firstly, getting to Net Zero by 2050 is necessary to respond to the overwhelming evidence of the role of greenhouse gases in driving global climate change. But it is also feasible and cost-effective, in that the technologies and approaches that will be needed to deliver Net Zero are well understood and the costs of key technologies are already falling.

How important is infrastructure?

As we move towards a Net Zero world, the sectors that can make the biggest difference are those that rely heavily on infrastructure - electricity generation, heat, and surface transport. We anticipate a doubling of the size of the UK’s electricity sector to meet new demands, including producing electricity to power most vehicles on our roads, building a low-carbon hydrogen sector of similar size to the electricity sector today, and capturing and storing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide.

That all needs infrastructure. New networks will need supporting while the capacity of existing grids needs to be expanded, with greater flexibility, like strengthening electricity distribution grids to support electric vehicles and heat pumps.

What does net-zero infrastructure look like?

There’s still genuine uncertainty about which technologies will best deliver a net-zero future. The CCC has looked at options to close the gap between the original 80% emissions reduction target and getting to Net Zero by 2050. These include going faster and further with many of the technologies that were required by the initial target (renewable electricity generation, electric vehicles) but also a rollout of low-carbon hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage. But with new solutions emerging, the continually falling costs of existing technologies, and changing public acceptability, we’re optimistic that the answers are within reach.

It’s important that we move quickly on the low-regret options due to the lead-times for planning and delivering major infrastructure. One example is carbon capture and storage - capturing carbon dioxide produced from fossil fuels and preventing it from entering the atmosphere. We know that we will require a lot of this by 2050. Regional 'cluster'-based infrastructure may need to be developed through siting initial hydrogen and carbon capture and storage development around large, currently high emitting, industrial sites across the UK so that transport and storage facilities can be shared.

We also know that the infrastructure required to get to Net Zero needs to be resilient and financeable.

It must be resilient to the impacts of climate change that are expected, and many of these changes are inevitable even if we get to net zero. In the water sector, for example, the National Infrastructure Commission has estimated that £930 million will be required each year, on average, between 2020 and 2050 to increase the UK’s drought resilience.

It needs to be financeable so that the changes required can be funded in a way that distributes costs fairly. The Committee wrote to the Treasury earlier this month calling on it to develop a plan to fund UK decarbonisation fairly, and to review the distribution of costs across the economy.

The volume of additional investment required to get to Net Zero will need a significant contribution from the private sector. For example, we’ve estimated that the power sector would require £20 billion of annual investment by 2050 which is £9 billion a year higher than the current annual investment levels. But as we’ve seen with Contracts-for-Difference for electricity generation, smart policy design can reduce investment risk and allow the private sector to bring forward large volumes of capital.

How will we know we’re on the right track?

Government will need to take strategic decisions which provide long-term certainty for other investments. A key indicator of progress, therefore, will be stable milestones on the road to Net Zero and a commitment to the policies and projects required to get there. In turn, this will help secure the investments needed. We at the Committee will continue to report annual progress on the government’s efforts to deliver the Net Zero target to Parliament.

But the real proof will be in the pudding: actual investments being made, planning approvals for Net Zero infrastructure and that infrastructure being built. Hitting Net Zero isn’t going to be easy, but the infrastructure sector will play a key role in getting us there.

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