Absolute Zero , released by the University of Cambridge in November 2019, warns that the U.K. will not reach zero emissions by 2050 without significant changes to policies, industrial processes and individual lifestyle choices – including closing all airports in the UK by mid-century. (Perhaps the impact of this report can be seen in the U.K. court ruling on February 27 that Heathrow airport’s third runway is a legal violation of the country’s climate change commitment under the Paris Agreement.) Although Absolute Zero was released in November 2019, it was debated in the British House of Lords on February 6 , and was the subject of a Research Briefing by the House of Lords Library in support of that debate.
The prestige of the authors also may have contributed to the impact of its ideas. They are members of UK Fires (UK Future Industrial Resource Efficiency Strategy), a research collaboration between the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Nottingham, Bath and Imperial College London, and funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. They contend that the UK should aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to absolute zero, rather than the “net zero” target specified in the Climate Change Act 2008 , and by the U.K. Committee on Climate Change in its report, Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming (May 2019) and its 2019 Report to Parliament of the U.K. Committee on Climate Change (July 2019) .
Absolute Zero also parts company with the Committee on Climate Change in its view that emerging technologies will not be scalable in time to meet emissions targets by 2050. It builds its analysis on “today’s technologies”, striking an optimistic tone while calling for fundamental changes in individual behaviour, government policy, and industrial processes. Some excerpts ….
“We need to switch to using electricity as our only form of energy and if we continue today’s impressive rates of growth in non-emitting generation, we’ll only have to cut our use of energy to 60% of today’s levels….
“The two big challenges we face with an all electric future are flying and shipping. Although there are lots of new ideas about electric planes, they won’t be operating at commercial scales within 30 years, so zero emissions means that for some period, we’ll all stop using aeroplanes. Shipping is more challenging: although there are a few military ships run by nuclear reactors, we currently don’t have any large electric merchant ships, but we depend strongly on shipping for imported food and goods….
“Absolute Zero creates a driver for tremendous growth in industries related to electrification, from material supply, through generation and storage to end-use. The fossil fuel, cement, shipping and aviation industries face rapid contraction, while construction and many manufacturing sectors can continue at today’s scales, with appropriate transformations……
“Committing to zero emissions creates tremendous opportunities: there will be huge growth in the use and conversion of electricity for travel, warmth and in industry; growth in new zero emissions diets; growth in materials production, manufacturing and construction compatible with zero emissions; growth in leisure and domestic travel; growth in businesses that help us to use energy efficiently and to conserve the value in materials…..
“Protest is no longer enough – we must together discuss the way we want the solution to develop; the government needs to treat this as a delivery challenge – just like we did with the London Olympics, ontime and on-budget; the emitting businesses that must close cannot be allowed to delay action, but meanwhile the authors of this report are funded by the government to work across industry to support the transition to growth compatible with zero emissions.”
The UK Fires collaboration officially launched in October 2019. It is building on previous related research, including the April 2019 report Steel Arising which it highlights on the UK Fires website. Steel Arising envisions greening of the UK steelmaking industry by “moving away from primary production towards recycled steel made with sustainable power.” It states: “Not only will this create long-term green jobs, it will lead to world-leading exportable skills and technologies and allow us to transform the highly valuable scrap that we currently export at low value, but should be nurturing as a strategic asset. With today’s grid we can do this with less than half the emissions of making steel with iron ore and with more renewable power in future this could drop much further.”