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Can we achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050?

According to a new report from National Grid Electric System Operator (ESO), which keeps the electricity grid running smoothly, the UK can achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. However, reaching this goal will require us all to follow a very different approach to the one we’re used to.

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Can we achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050?

The ESO report, Future Energy Scenarios 2019, outlines four pathways for the next 30 years: Community Renewables; Two degrees; Steady Progression; and Consumer Evolution. Developed through National Grid and 400 outside experts, each pathway adopts a different approach to meeting the rising demand for electricity while also reducing carbon emissions. The scenarios also describe the source of the extra power required.

Crucially, none of the four core scenarios can now actually deliver the mandated reduction in carbon emissions required by 2050. As a result, the government will now need a more radical approach to reach its net-zero emissions target.

Even so, the report concludes that the UK can achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This recently added and suitably adjusted ‘net-zero’ scenario is based on a similar proposal within the ‘two-degrees’ scenario. Separate to the four core scenarios, it differs by focusing on three key areas. This includes the drive towards increased electrification, the deployment of bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) to offset residual emissions, and the development of a hydrogen economy.

Two key breakthroughs

Meeting these more stringent emissions reduction targets will require two important advances: the electricity system using only zero carbon generation, and the power system delivering net negative emissions. The report suggests that BECCS technology could help deliver both.

Currently, Drax Power Station is using biomass to trial this technology in its own world-first BECCS project. Its engineers, alongside partner company C-Capture, are already capturing carbon dioxide from electricity generation fueled by biomass feedstock – and they aim to upscale the project and capture much more.

While it’s still early days in the trial, it’s certainly a step towards the 2050 total of 37 million tonnes of captured carbon detailed in the Future Energy Scenarios report.

In the report’s vision of the decarbonised future, there’s also a vital role for increased electrification and energy storage. The authors anticipate as much as 20% of the solar electricity produced being stored in advanced electric vehicles (EVs) until it’s needed.

Success?

So, can we achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050? The National Grid ESO certainly thinks so. What’s more, with energy sector leaders like Drax taking a pioneering role in making it happen, the early signs are encouraging.

We’ll be watching these developments very closely – and sharing them too.

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