Successful decarbonisation of energy systems needs clarity from UK government

New research highlights the key areas the government must resolve to achieve net zero by 2050, and how the UK can become a global leader


New research highlights what the UK government must do to achieve an affordable, sustainable and secure energy system to reach the net zero goal by 2050. This report by transatlantic law firm Womble Bond Dickinson and energy consultancy Cornwall Insight comes at a time when the rising cost of living, reducing carbon emissions, and improving energy security are all top policy priorities.

The report The UK and the energy transition: Leading the way? analysed different markets including solar PV, onshore wind, offshore wind, low-carbon hydrogen and carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS). It showed that the UK government must tackle key problem areas to hit its net zero target, and could go on to become a global leader in decarbonising its economy.

Overcoming barriers

The research identifies several barriers to decarbonising the energy system, including strengthening domestic supply chains to boost economic growth and engaging with local communities to roll-out renewable technologies such as onshore wind and solar. The research shows the UK needs to exploit first mover advantage for low-carbon hydrogen and CCUS by providing clarity on business-friendly models for new technologies, which enables industries and investors to make appropriate investment decisions. The report suggests focus also needs to be given to research and development to support domestic manufacturing and the workforce.

Ever increasing power prices forecasted up to 2044 underline the need to build confidence for investment in renewable energy and deliver a stable and secure energy future.

Other areas the report outlined as key development areas were:

  • Boosting international coordination and developing partnerships:  A more coordinated policy particularly between the US, the UK and the EU would enable these countries to tackle ongoing threats to energy supply. The wealth of knowledge across hydrogen, CO2 storage and other developing energy areas can be shared to progress technologies across the globe.
  • Streamlining consenting process for renewables: The simplification of the offshore wind planning processes in the Energy Security Strategy, reducing consenting time from up to four years down to one year, represents an important step towards a more streamlined market. However, onshore wind received less attention with limited detail and less ambitious proposals.
  • Ringfence the crisis of energy suppliers: The UK government should support businesses struggling due to the energy crisis, which would demonstrate they recognise the complexity of investment and risk-taking in the energy sector and would help to rebuild confidence.

Maximising advantages

The UK and the energy transition: Leading the way? offers an international insight into progress and shows that despite the challenges listed above, the UK is well placed to play a key role in global efforts to reduce carbon emissions over the coming decades. Advantages identified in the report that can be capitalised upon if challenges are addressed include: boasting a strong reputation as a friendly environment for energy and infrastructure investment - thanks to the UK’s robust rule of law and the transparency of its legal system; a geographical location that supports offshore (including floating) wind, and ambitious domestic climate targets.

Moving goal posts

Richard Cockburn, Head of Energy at Womble Bond Dickinson, said: “Throughout the research period for this report, new variables continued to be thrown into the mix. The impact of the invasion of Ukraine, gas supply concerns and new legislation and political strategies were just some of the developments, which are typical of the pace at which the energy landscape changes. It’s tricky making decisions in an environment which is constantly in flux – which is why this data and insight will hopefully be invaluable for a market currently in a period of change.

“The report takes a global view, and the research has made it increasingly clear that the journey to net zero must be a collaborative one. While the UK is well placed to take the lead in many areas of transition, the right policies need to be in place to make this a reality. 

“The UK is a world leader in areas such as offshore wind - where the UK successfully ran its Offshore Wind Leasing Round 4 and its ScotWind process, which together could create up to an additional 33GW of offshore wind capacity.”

While the UK is well placed to take the lead in many areas of transition, the right policies need to be in place to make this a reality

Naomi Potter, Lead Research Analyst at Cornwall Insight, said: “This research explores the advantages the UK holds as it pushes forward with the decarbonisation of its economy in the coming decades. The UK is already a global offshore wind leader, has some clear competitive advantages in the development of floating technologies at scale, and is paving the way to utility-scale low carbon hydrogen and CCUS.

“There are critical challenges facing the country as it pushes forward with its decarbonisation ambitions. These challenges are not insurmountable, however, and building on its strong foundations, the country can make significant strides towards environmental sustainability and energy independence, while unlocking investment opportunities.”

Whitehall forecasts have recently predicted that six million UK households could face blackouts this winter in a “reasonable” worst-case scenario. In relation to the lack of quick fixes the government has available to them, Richard added: “As explained in the onshore wind section of our new research, onshore wind offers earlier relief but that is dependent on the planning regime in England and Wales being overhauled so that such developments are permitted at all and that the planning processes are much quicker.

“Longer term, the offshore wind timeline ‘from drawing board to first generation’ needs to be much shorter. This is also covered in our new report.”

The UK and the energy transition: Leading the way? includes quotes from interviews with experts at DNV, EDF Energy, Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, Lightsource bp, ABN Amro, Greencoat Capital, NECCUS, Abundance Investment, Global Infrastructure Investor Association, Statkraft and others.

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