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Energy explained

What is Net Zero and how do we get there?

A picture from a climate crisis protest in San Francisco, United States

The House of Commons has approved draft legislation to make the UK Net Zero by 2050. The hard part will be achieving the target. Find out what the UK needs to do, and how you can help.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reminded us earlier this year that to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of the climate crisis we must limit global warming to below 1.5°C. To do that, we need to reach Net Zero emissions across the globe by 2050. In May, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommended the UK should legally commit to Net Zero emissions by 2050. The UK government has agreed the draft to legislate a 2050 Net Zero target for all greenhouse gases. If legislated, the UK will be the first G7 country to make this commitment - a demonstration of climate leadership to be proud of.

Getting to Net Zero

Net Zero means reducing the UK’s emissions by 100% from 1990 levels. Greenhouse gas emissions that can’t be avoided must be matched by removing the equivalent from the atmosphere. The target applies to all sectors, including aviation and shipping. We’ll look at the work that needs to be done in four areas to achieve Net Zero.

Electrify transport

Transport is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 27% of UK emissions. Not only that, but transport emissions are continuing to rise. Today, just 0.5% vehicles in the UK have low-carbon emissions. The UK must phase out conventional petrol and diesel vehicles, replacing them with electric or plug-in hybrid options.

At Bulb we’ve made the first steps to develop products and services for electric vehicle (EV) owners. We launched a trial of smart charging devices for electric vehicles with our partner EDMI. We’ve also been working with open smart charger company EO to support Plug In Suffolk - the UK’s first fully open fast charging network. Businesses taking part in the scheme get help funding, installing, maintaining and operating charging stations, in partnership with local installers. This helps EV drivers charge vehicles when they’re away from home, known as ‘destination charging’.

Richard Seppings (Anglia Car Charging) and Charlie Jardine (EO Charging) launch Plug in Suffolk in February
Richard Seppings (Anglia Car Charging) and Charlie Jardine (EO Charging) launch Plug-in Suffolk in February 2019, the UK’s first fully open fast charging network.

Decarbonise power

Reaching Net Zero will mean reducing emissions from the power sector by 97% from todays’ levels. While this sounds ambitious, it’s doable. The electricity sector is the easiest to decarbonise. This is because we already have widely available and affordable technology to do so, like renewable energy generation. The UK should therefore focus on removing carbon from electricity generation, and then electrifying the heating and transport sectors. 

We’re going to need more than double the amount of electricity we need compared to today if we achieve this. The UK will need to build about 5-10GW of new renewable capacity every year, mostly from wind generation. To put that into context, we have 8GW offshore wind capacity today. So we need to add what we already have every year for the next 30 years. 

Revolutionise heating

Net Zero means making one million UK homes carbon neutral every year between now and 2050. We need to decarbonise heating by electrifying it, and improve energy efficiency in buildings.

Taking carbon out of our heating is one of the most challenging parts of reaching Net Zero. Since 2008, when the Climate Change Act was passed in the UK, there’s been little movement on this. Only 7% of UK heat currently comes from renewable sources. To get there, we’ll need to electrify most of our heating. Plus, the CCC recognise green gas and hydrogen have useful potential to meet the heating demand that electrified heating can’t meet. Doing this is expected to require half the total costs of getting to Net Zero.

Bulb will soon start helping its members improve the energy efficiency of their homes. We’ll do this through the government’s energy efficiency scheme, the Energy Companies Obligation (ECO). Through ECO, we’ll offer members products or services to help save on bills and reduce emissions, with things like new insulation.

Remove carbon

Net Zero will only be achievable if we can remove carbon from the atmosphere, on top of reducing the amount we produce.

Emissions that cannot be eliminated must be matched by removing the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere. This will be achieved by planting trees, which absorb and store carbon, as well as by Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), capturing carbon emissions from industrial processes and storing in the ground. Both result in negative emissions, and both remain important tools in delivering Net Zero. CCS is yet to get started in the UK, but there are 43 large-scale projects around the world. Deploying CCS quickly is crucial to achieving Net Zero.

A chart showing UK carbon emissions now and in 2050
The UK will need to cut significant emissions across a number of sectors to reach Net Zero. Sources: CCC Net-Zero Exhibits – Chapter 5, BEIS Final emissions Statistics Report (2019).

Actions you can take to help

In their report, the CCC highlight some lifestyle changes we can all make to help the UK reach Net Zero. We’ve included the simple, universal actions they recommend here but you can read the full list in the CCC report.

Travel clean

  • Walk or cycle if you can

  • Take public transport instead of driving

  • Take as few flights as possible

  • Consider getting an electric vehicle

At home

  • Improve insulation

  • Use LED light bulbs

  • Buy appliances with high efficiency ratings

  • Set your thermostat no higher than 19°C

Food and waste

  • Eat less meat and dairy

  • Eliminate food waste as much as possible

  • Reduce, reuse and recycle your other waste

  • Buy good quality products that will last

  • Share things that you don't use frequently, rather than buying your own

Plumen energy efficient light bulbs
Switching to LED light bulbs is a simple way to reduce your bills and emissions, helping the UK reach Net Zero. They look snazzy too. Photo credit: Plumen.

Switching to a renewable supplier like Bulb is another simple way to help the UK reach Net Zero. We're proud to offer 100% carbon neutral energy. Currently, we achieve this by supplying 100% renewable electricity, 10% green gas and we offset the rest by working with carbon reduction projects around the world.

The CCC report recommends that Net Zero should be achieved without buying international carbon offsets. Until other solutions to decarbonise our heating become more widely available and affordable, carbon offsetting is an important way to take responsibility for our members’ emissions - the alternative is to do nothing. We’re continuing to promote green gas and provide as much as possible to our members, but the industry is still small and hugely reliant on government funding.

How government can help

It’s great that the government intend to legislate the Net Zero 2050 target. But we’ll need new policies to make it happen. We’ll need government to champion all renewable technologies. At Bulb we’re asking the government to get clear on the future of the Renewable Heat Incentive, a crucial revenue stream for green gas generators. And we’d like to see more clarity on the future of onshore wind and solar.

Government should also consider how to make this transition fairly. It’s expected to cost 1-2% GDP each year between now and 2050 to reach Net Zero. This might sound like a lot, but it’s the same as our previous UK carbon target, which we reached early. Costs of key technologies like offshore wind and batteries are expected to drop rapidly between now and 2050. The key thing is that costs must be distributed fairly, with vulnerable people protected across society. The UK has already demonstrated that it’s possible to cut emissions while growing the economy. We can do it again.

While this target is ambitious, Looking at UK-level carbon emissions only tells you part of the story. We know that the UK’s carbon footprint extends beyond our borders - about 20% of our emissions come from outside the UK. This is because of importing goods made elsewhere, for example steel. As a wealthy, developed nation with a high demand for imports, we need to address this. Many advocate for a Carbon Border Tax Adjustment - a tax put on imports from countries with no carbon price. Until all countries agree to a Net Zero target, a CBTA is the best way to address the discrepancy between what countries produce, and what they consume.

We’re glad the UK is taking the lead and setting an ambitious target like Net Zero. The UK will be the first G7 country to commit to this. Whilst the UK contributes 1% to global emissions, our indirect impact through leadership, technology and innovation can extend far beyond our borders. We hope this will encourage other countries to do the same. We need everyone to get on board - it’s a global problem that needs a global effort.

Bulb has signed a cross-party letter asking the government to provide the same support for onshore wind as other renewable technologies. Ask your MP to sign the letter here.

Read more tips on how to save money on your heating in our Help Centre.

As always, we’d love to know what you think. Can you think of other ways to help the UK get to Net Zero? Join the conversation in the Bulb Community.