Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050; the impact of COVID-19 on the UK targets

  • 30/10/2020
  • 18:06
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80 days after the UK’s entered its first lockdown in March 2020 we saw a 30% reduction in the country’s daily CO2 emissions. This equals an annual drop of 11% compared to before the lockdown.

This indicates that the change of lifestyle many UK inhabitants have experienced so far this year – remote working, alternative transport, and reduced travel – could help mitigate the damaging effects of carbon emissions if adopted long-term. Companies, universities, and the government are realising that this is an opportunity to not only reach the zero-carbon emissions goal, but to enable the economy to recover successfully.

Universities tackling the issue

COVID-19 is forecast to result in a 6% decrease in global CO2 emissions this year, which would be the greatest annual reduction to date. However, to succeed in reaching the 2050 goal of zero carbon emissions, it needs to be over 7% consistently, every year. Although carbon emissions dipped during the initial lockdown, environmental experts predict a massive increase post-COVID-19, as governments and businesses will want to recover as quickly as possible. Next year the UN climate change conference, COP26, will be held in Glasgow, and many see this as an opportunity for the UK to lead by example in sustainability. Professor Dan Parsons, Director of the Energy & Environment Institute at the University of Hull explains, “We have an opportunity now, as industry has slowed and carbon emissions have been significantly reduced, to map out our future – in doing so massively increasing our chances of becoming net-zero carbon by 2050.”

The COP26 University Network, formed from over 30 universities across the UK, has proposed measures which they deem essential for the country’s future economic recovery. These include bailouts based on climate-related criteria for struggling companies, especially those primarily using fossil fuel. Improved broadband connectivity and standards in the construction of new homes, as well as an incentive scheme to encourage the purchasing of electric vehicles, are also part of the Network’s measures. If the UK adopts these measures, combined with potential stimulus packages from the government following the crisis, there is a greater chance of realising the 2050 zero carbon emissions goal.

Changing travel patterns and the rise of electronic transport

Transport habits have shifted since the onset of COVID-19 and it is possible we may not revert to previous routines. Those living in cities are shifting from public transport to adhere to social distancing rules, resulting in an increased use of electric mobility transport. The electric scooter company, Lime, carried out a survey which revealed a larger share of city inhabitants state they will use e-scooters more in the future than before the lockdown. Research by Mckinsey earlier this year found more people would use cars, bikes, or e-scooters and e-bikes than pre-COVID-19, the main reason being avoiding risk of infection.

As transport contributes to most of the UK’s carbon emissions, this is a key area to focus on going forward. Clean modes of transport which have been adopted increasingly since March are set to become the norm for many commuters. The UK’s £2 billion national grant announced earlier this year has contributed to pop-up bike lanes, cycle-only corridors and widening pavements. The legalisation of using e-scooters on roads has further made ‘green transport’ more accessible. London’s congestion charge and Ultra Low Emission Zone, and the UK’s aim of banning new petrol and diesel cars by 2035 is driving progress towards the 2050 goal. It will still be a challenge – meeting the zero-carbon target means reducing UK car mileage by 60% and this includes low emission cars, as even electric vehicles contribute to carbon emissions through manufacturing and maintenance. However, by creating a permanent infrastructure to accommodate bikes, pedestrians and e-mobility vehicles, there is an increased chance the public will turn to greener transport going forward.

Restructuring supply chains

By shortening supply chains, organisations can benefit from increased resilience and sustainability. A recent CDP report revealed that companies’ supply chains account for 5.5 times more emissions than direct operations. Shortening supply chains isn’t only about distance, but reducing lead times, which in turn lessens waste. By utilising advancements in AI and cloud computing, organisations can further boost supply chain efficiency. Moreover, they are better able to meet sustainability standards with the use of data collection and monitoring technology.

The key here is to act fast but think in the long term. As Kevin Quigley, commercial director of food-waste recyclers Warrens Group states, “Business owners shouldn’t be in a hurry to get back to pre-COVID performance with quick-fix solutions. They need long-term sustainability goals. This is a rare moment in our history when there is an opportunity to rebuild on a clean path of growth.” Driving green innovation are companies like LivingPackets, which produces packaging that can be reused 1000 times, and Orderly, which managed to set up direct-to-customer orders with UK supermarket Morrisons in just six days in response to COVID-19. As we move past the 6-month mark since the initial lockdown, UK companies are better able to transform their supply chains to drive more reliable, sustainable business in the future.

COVID-19 has presented the UK with numerous challenges, yet it has also been a wake-up call, pushing us to turn our attention to better sustainability. By making permanent changes and shifting to sustainable practices, the UK is increasing its chance of achieving the fast-approaching 2050 goal of zero carbon emissions.

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