What would a Net Zero society look like by 2050?

  • Climate and sustainability

Dr Maria Sharmina, Reader in Energy and Sustainability, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester 

Note: Dr Maria Sharmina was Senior Academic Advisor on the Net Zero Society project in the Government Office for Science from 2021–2023. Here, Maria is writing in her academic capacity, and her views do not represent the views of the Government Office for Science.

In this piece Dr Maria Sharmina describes some of the possible models of societal change that could help us meet targets to reduce emissions, exploring the pros and cons of each. Maria also explores the need to address issues around energy demand as well as supply, and the importance of prioritising non-technological measures as well as technological solutions.

The UK has an ambitious target to achieve a fully decarbonised economy by 2050. As part of its net zero target, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions would need to go down by 100%, compared to the 1990 levels. The ‘net’ in the ‘net zero’ means that, if some critical sectors like aviation and industry find it virtually impossible to eliminate all emissions, we would have to compensate by using negative emission technologies (often collectively abbreviated as ‘NETs’) and land-based solutions.

NETs include several ways to remove carbon dioxide: some already tested at small scale (carbon capture and storage), some with a high energy penalty (direct air capture), and some more appropriate for dystopian sci-fi (solar radiation management).

Global failure to sufficiently reduce emissions so far has resulted in more hopes being pinned on such technologies, unproven at scale. If they fail to materialise, we’ll burn through the remaining carbon budget within the next 5 to 10 years, crossing over into the dangerous climate change territory.

Unlike global emissions, the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions have nearly halved since 1990. The main reasons include an economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic, outsourcing energy-intensive industries to other countries, and replacing coal with renewables and natural gas for electricity generation.

The UK’s emissions would need to fall at a similar rate year on year to meet the net zero target by 2050. Can we do it? What are the emerging trends that could help reduce emissions or get in the way? And what might a net zero UK society look like?

A study led by the Government Office for Science has looked into societal changes that might affect our path to net zero. The project was commissioned as part of the Government’s net zero strategy in 2021. The study involved an analysis of societal and behavioural trends that might influence emissions most, several workshops with experts to design Net Zero Society futures, energy system modelling, and a public dialogue to gather citizens’ views on these future scenarios.

With the help of experts, the study has envisioned and modelled four distinct scenarios of what the UK society might look like in 2050. Many other scenarios are possible, but these four reflect the main societal trends important for net zero policy.

The study has found that future societies that use less energy would help the UK to: (1) reduce reliance on untested negative emission technologies (NETs) and (2) make the low-carbon transition more affordable. In turn, lower dependence on NETs and lower cost would reduce the risk of not meeting net zero and prevent the worst climatic changes.

The scenario with lowest energy demand (the Slow Lane Society) uses around 65% less energy in 2050 than the scenario with the highest demand (the Atomised Society). In cost terms, both scenarios indicate that meeting the net zero target would be around 1% cheaper as a percentage of GDP than not meeting it. The Atomised Society compensates for its high energy use by assuming higher real income. In other words, this future society is sufficiently wealthy to afford an energy system that is both large and low-carbon.

The most expensive scenario (the Self Preservation Society), by contrast, has high energy demand and low economic growth, making a low-carbon energy system much less affordable. In this scenario, achieving net zero would cost 5% higher as a percentage of GDP than the baseline.

The fourth scenario (the Metropolitan Society) has a larger energy system than the Slow Lane Society but also a higher GDP growth, a combination that makes net zero more economically feasible. This scenario shows the biggest reduction in the 2050 system cost, at 2% below the baseline.

Yet high GDP cannot prevent the risk of NETs failing to deliver. Besides, our society would be taking a huge risk if we only assumed, and prepared for, high economic growth. This is why the Net Zero Society project has looked into a range of futures.

Each of the four scenarios has advantages and disadvantages for different sectors and parts of society. While the Atomised Society and the Metropolitan Society are more affluent and technologically developed than the other two scenarios, they suffer from divisions between the rich and the poor (in Atomised) and between urban and rural populations (in Metropolitan). Meanwhile, the Slow Lane Society enjoys high social cohesion but lacks resources, investment and advanced technology. In the Self Preservation Society, both technological development and societal trust are in short supply, but inequality is low, and a slow-paced world works for some.

Given that at least some economic growth is assumed across all scenarios (in line with OBR long-term projections), NETs become necessary to achieve net zero. However, the scenarios with reduced energy demand (particularly the Slow Lane Society), not only rely less on such technologies, but also enjoy health co-benefits and need less land for energy infrastructure.

Reductions in energy demand come from operational and technological measures such as energy efficiency, as well as from less travel and using products for longer (which helps to reduce the need for manufacturing and freight). Essentially, the transport and industry sectors grow slower here than in the other scenarios. In addition to cutting carbon dioxide, lower economic activity reduces air pollution, resulting in better health outcomes.

The public dialogue focused on the scenarios’ plausibility, tensions and trade-offs, reactions to individual scenarios and cross-cutting themes. Cross-cutting themes came up across the public workshops and included technology, equality, health, and citizen involvement.

Looking at the scenarios overall, members of the public found the Atomised and Self Preservation Societies more plausible than the other two scenarios, based on some of the strong current trends. Participants were open to more fundamental shifts in the UK’s future society. They suggested that such changes would be more plausible if the government facilitated reskilling, low-carbon food preferences, and changes in business practices (for example, phasing out built-in technological obsolescence).

Participants saw government investment in infrastructure as a key condition for societal changes envisioned in the Metropolitan and Slow Lane Societies. Such infrastructure would cover accessible, affordable and well-integrated public transport, facilities for active travel, and alternatives to flying. These measures were seen by participants as prerequisites for reducing demand for carbon-intensive travel by road and air.

Societal changes were thus seen as more plausible where low-carbon options were a visible and easy choice. The good news is that such infrastructure investment would be more likely to yield results quickly than investment in NETs. While the latter would still be necessary as part of a long-term decarbonisation strategy, behaviour-shaping policies are needed in the short term, given the vanishingly small carbon budget.

The Powering Up Britain policy paper released in March 2023 confirms the government’s preference for supply-side and technological measures, such as carbon capture and storage, offshore wind and hydrogen. But, apart from reiterated support for energy efficient buildings, demand-reduction measures are still in their infancy. The stress-testing undertaken in the Net Zero Society project shows that resilient policy would need to address both supply and demand sides, with technological and non-technological measures equally prioritised.

Photo Credit: Andreas Gucklhorn on Unsplash

About the author

Dr Maria Sharmina is Reader in Energy and Sustainability at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the School of Engineering.  She completed her PhD within the Tyndall Centre and her educational background is in economics and statistics. She was formerly Senior Academic Advisor with the Government Office for Science and Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), working on the Net Zero Foresight project. She is a Co-Director at Policy@Manchester, the University’s sector-leading policy engagement institute. Maria is a member of the Programme Advisory Board for the UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) Digital Economy Theme, and a member of the Sustainable Robotics Committee at the British Standards Institution (BSI).  Previously, she was a member of the University Senate, Deputy Director of Research with responsibility for Research Environment in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace & Civil Engineering, and a visiting fellow at the University College London (UCL) Energy Institute.