UK Whitepaper - Impressive Big Picture but Short on Details

The UK Government's newly published Energy White Paper, 'Powering our Net Zero Future,' builds on the Prime Minister's Ten Point Plan and sets out its policies to deliver an energy system aligned with a commitment to net-zero by 2050.

The UK Government's newly published Energy White Paper, 'Powering our Net Zero Future,' builds on the Prime Minister's Ten Point Plan and sets out its policies to deliver an energy system aligned with a commitment to net-zero by 2050.

The general response to the long-awaited (delayed) White Paper has been one of cautious optimism. Optimism, as it represents a significant body of work, a key policy 'way-marker' in the UK's journey to a coherent net-zero strategy. Caution, as the paper recycles a number of policy proposals from the Ten Point Plan but omits detail and plans for implementation. The Committee on Climate Change's (CCC's) recent historic 'Net Zero' Sixth Carbon Budget is a hard act to follow. It is difficult to see this document as anything but an impressive scene-setter, with business and consumers hopeful for clear strategy and policy certainty.

Indeed, the Government estimates that the outlined measures will lead to a 230 MtCO2e reduction by 2032 (end of the 5th carbon budget). An improvement, but this would still leave a gap of 101 MtCO2e to align with the UK's net-zero trajectory. The Government acknowledges this and aims to publish a number of sector-specific strategies in the lead-up to COP26, along with its overall Net-Zero Strategy. 

A quick take on some particular points of interest:

  • The paper serves to reinforce the deep and pervasive role that electricity will need to play in decarbonising heat, transport, and industry.
  • There is much focus on unproven and unscaled technological solutions to drive down emissions – e.g., by 2030, 10Mt/year of Carbon Capture, Usage, and Storage (CCUS); 5GW of clean hydrogen; a commercially viable nuclear fusion plant by 2040; exploring the role of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). The thrust for innovation is admirable but risks over-reliance on future technologies at the expense of greater short-term action.
  • A UK Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) will be implemented from 1 January, ending uncertainty over a carbon tax versus cap-and-trade for UK emissions. Covering a single page of the 170-page document, new details of the ETS were scant. However, the scheme will seek to align with the country's net-zero pathway.
  • The UK Government is actively engaging industry to bring at least one nuclear plant to Final Investment Decision the next four years. This comes amid criticism over true value for money on Hinckley Point C and the withdrawal of the Wylfa nuclear project.

Matthew Gibson