Ep61: Julia King 'Engineering the UK’s Net Zero Transition'

“Net zero is essential. It's hugely important. But we need to recognize that the climate goes on changing to 2050 at least, and probably some way beyond that, sadly.”: Julie King on the net-zero by 2050 climate goal.


In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich talks to Professor Dame Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, crossbench peer and Chair of the Climate Change Committee.

Michael and Julia begin by recounting Julia’s work on the Stern Review, which was led by Cleaning Up’s previous guest Lord Stern.

They then discuss the pitfalls of using diesel cars and condensing boilers to reduce emissions and how these mistakes could be repeated.

Finally, the conversation turns to COP 26 and Julie's expectations for the conference.

This is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.



Michael Liebreich: What is your current focus as a peer and Chair of the Climate Change Committee?

Julia King: I chair the adaptation committee for the Climate Change Committee. We had a very busy summer, because we published a huge exercise, which was pulling together the evidence base for the third climate change risk assessment. So that's been coordinating over 200 academics and specialists and people from industry to produce the evidence base for how the climate is changing in the UK, and what the risks are. And then also publishing our advice to the government, for them to take up as they prepare their formal climate change risk assessment, for the whole of the UK, which will be published next year. And then of course, we also had a progress report on how we're doing on adaptation in the UK, which is another formal requirement from the committee.

ML: One of my previous guests was Lord Stern, whom you worked on the Stern review with. Can you briefly summarise what was said in the Stern review?

JK: What he said was that we can decarbonize transport. We've got the potential for biofuels, which I think we thought at that time, might have a much stronger role in transport than we see now. We said, there's an enormous amount we can do with conventional internal combustion engines in the interim, by having new technologies to dramatically reduce emissions. We looked at batteries and they had an important role. We looked at hydrogen, which seemed to play a minimal role, potentially for long distance vehicles and heavy transport. What has changed since then would be our view of biofuels. We realise now how enormously precious any bio and bio energy will be, and we would need to use it with carbon capture and storage in order to generate net negative emissions to get to net zero. It was a very positive message to say “we can do this, these are the sorts of policy measures we need”. We had a huge number of policy recommendations, the initial ones were all about setting tough targets for the emissions per mile from new car sales.We knew, having talked to a lot of the industry, that they had the technology to bring down emissions. The fuel duty escalator was pushing up the price of petrol and diesel every year quite significantly. We did initially see the UK public starting to buy more efficient, smaller cars. Then when the escalator came off, and fuel became a smaller issue for people, we saw people taking the benefit of these much lower emissions and more efficient vehicles, by keeping essentially the cost of their cost of fuel roughly the same. That was then enabling them to buy bigger cars again. Emissions from cars did come down a bit in the 2008-2010 period but then they started creeping up again, because people were moving to these more efficient but larger vehicles.

ML: There was a time when people were being pushed towards diesel cars because they were more efficient, did that backfire in terms of air quality?

JK: Actually, the new diesels people were buying were pretty clean, and they've gotten cleaner ever since. So I think the fire that has been directed towards diesels has not been entirely fair. I think all diesels and some of the diesel buses have lots of particulates. Yes, diesels have been a real problem, and it will be great when we move away from them completely. But I do think it was one of those things where we find a bogeyman and then we direct all our fire towards it. We had this huge problem, it was actually the nitrous oxides. You then had Dieselgate. Even now, we've still got a difference between the tests in the lab and real life. I think that what we should be doing is getting the telematics data straight off of the cars: how much fuel goes in, and how many miles they drive. And that should be the data set that goes into all of the policy instruments rather than self-reporting or theoretical numbers on this cycle and the other. And that's one of the things we've said on the Climate Change Committee historically, that we need real data on these things. 

ML: Since 2005 all new boilers have had to be condensing boilers, but they are wasting energy due to poor set-ups. Is this also a problem with heat-pumps?

JK: The condensing boiler problem is about to be reproduced again. In my view, we’re not getting to grips with the skills and being able to advise people on a systems basis. Our boiler installers are used to installing one piece of kit. They don't usually do very much in the way of doing whole house assessments. We've got to bring together those skills, because otherwise we're going to be using far more energy and will need to build too many new nuclear stations or turbines. It's not going to be a cost effective way of delivering net zero. We've just had a heat pump installed about a year ago. It took a week to install it, they've had to come back twice, because the settings weren't correct. It's now working perfectly well and it keeps us perfectly warm. But I have a very strong suspicion that it hasn't been properly set up for the house and the heating system that we've got. I suspect we're using far more electricity than we should be. It works and we're lucky enough to be in a position that it's not a huge part of our costs. But as we spread heat pumps out across the country, we have got to get the skill levels up and our understanding of how you make the right assessments and get the system set up properly. And more importantly, we actually need far more people who can advise on the whole house system. So how do you integrate the heat pump with the storage in your car battery? With the potential you may or may not have some solar panels on your roof? How do we optimize a whole house system for people so that they can run their homes in a green way, but at the lowest cost as well?

ML: Hydrogen is now the topic of the day and there is enormous lobbying activity around using hydrogen for heating. Where do you stand on hydrogen?

JK: I think hydrogen is going to be very important for us. It will be very hard to decarbonize parts of industry, shipping, aviation, and some parts of heavy transport. In all of those sectors hydrogen becomes part of the story. Our work suggests that we need an energy system where about 20% of our energy might come from hydrogen in 2050, that lines up pretty closely with McKinsey's assessment of about 18%. Globally by 2050. I think it's very clear that for things like steelmaking hydrogen could be enormously beneficial. Shipping is moving towards electric for some small vessels, but probably ammonia for larger ships and tankers and military vessels. We're going to need hydrogen to make synthetic aviation fuels. We've got Airbus announcing that by 2030, they'll have a liquid hydrogen powered narrow body aircraft. The big question marks are, “How much hydrogen do we need for heavy transport?” David C. Barnwell absolutely correctly tells you that if we could do it with electricity, it's more efficient. I suppose I have a concern that I can't actually see us getting round to getting catenaries put in place on all of the motorways in the UK by 2050. Because look how slow we are at electrifying our rail system. So, I just think there's a practical challenge there. And also, we're starting to see some interesting work for some heavy applications, looking at how efficiently we can run a modified diesel engine on hydrogen. And that starts to look like quite a cost competitive way of dealing with this.

ML: We are a few weeks away from COP 26. Will you be attending and what are you hoping to see from it?

JK: I should be there with my adaptation hat on. One of the messages that we've been trying to get across from the climate change committee is that net zero doesn't solve the problem. Net zero is essential. It's hugely important. But we need to recognize that the climate goes on changing to 2050 at least, and probably some way beyond that, sadly. The last 10 years have been the hottest 10 years on record. I would bet that the next 10 years will also be the hottest 10 years on record. We've got to make sure that the UK and the world are capable of dealing with that. That's going to be pretty tough in the UK and Europe, as we've seen from the terrible flooding in Germany. But it's going to be tougher for some of the low- and middle-income countries. Apart from everybody signing up to net zero and tough NDCs, I do want to see movement on the funds to support the developing world, in order to jump over all of the technologies that are causing problems, but also to make sure that they are adapted. Otherwise, we are going to see some real migration crisis, amongst other things.