Here’s what it would take to end fossil fuel emissions

To reach net zero UK greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is a tall order. It will mainly be achieved by cutting fossil fuels use: including coal, natural gas and petroleum. Achieving this will require a rapid and profound transformation of the entire UK energy system.

Smaller energy transformations have already taken place in the UK. For example, during 1966 to 1977, moving millions of buildings from town gas (made from hot coal) to North Sea natural gas involved the construction of a national gas network. but modern energy is much more complex and the UK has never transformed such an important and critical system.

There are two main ways to reduce fossil fuel emissions: elimination and decarbonization.

Elimination means that low-carbon energy sources such as renewables, hydrogen gas and nuclear power replace fossil fuels. This requires “fuel change”- change or modernize systems across the country to run on these new fuels, such as switching from gasoline to electric cars. The two main areas where fuel switching is required are vehicles and building heating.

On the other hand, decarbonization requires capturing broadcasts as they are produced. This technology, known as carbon capture and use or storage, is typically done by chemically compressing carbon dioxide in a liquid and storing or removing it. By using it to manufacture synthetic fuels, chemicals and building materials.

Emissions can be captured and stored, instead of being released into the atmosphere.
Gerry Machen / Flickr, CC BY-ND

Other “negative emission technologies“That remove greenhouse gases from the air are under development, but so far none are ready for mass deployment.”


In the UK, plans to achieve net zero emissions are already well advanced. Among the contributors are the Climate Change Committee, the Department of Commercial, energy and industrial strategy and the national grid.

Governments of countries, including Scotland, Wales and North Ireland have also made plans – but it remains to be seen to what extent these will be achievable in practice.

Among the many challenges these plans pose, two stand out: sorting out mass fuel changes and deploying complex new technologies related to low-carbon fuels.

Mass fuel change could cause problems if the new equipment is initially too scarce, unreliable, or more expensive to buy or operate than existing equipment. In addition, meet the population energy demand using only low-carbon energy is much easier said than done and could lead to shortages if not carefully controlled.

Even though these issues may only arise for a short time as we get used to a new low-carbon economy, they would still require swift responses from those responsible for the transition to avoid social unrest.

Most energy transition plans also rely on adding new technologies to our list to help generate more, greener energy. These include carbon capture and storage, as well as advanced nuclear technology such as small modular reactors and green hydrogen produced from low carbon electricity. The speed with which these inventions will be developed and adopted, both in industry and in society, will have to to augment if we want to meet climate goals.

An electric car being charged
The transition to low-carbon energy involves switching from gasoline to electric vehicles.
Kārlis Dambrāns / Flickr, CC BY-SA

My own research on how to make energy transitions successful shows that to keep a transition on track, we need strong political leadership.

Leaders shouldn’t just set ambitious energy efficiency goals. They should also support energy efficiency improvement programs such as home renovation, to encourage investment in energy technology research, and help local communities facilitate the transition of citizens: for example, by installing more charging stations for electric vehicles.


A successful transition to low carbon energy would not only help the UK meet its climate bonds. Other benefits could include better air quality, less energy poverty, better national energy security and more reliable transport.

Social movements could play a key role during this transition. It might look like supporting vulnerable people (including the elderly, chronically ill and refugees) through the process of changing fuel. And this could involve the development of new businesses that improve the efficiency of a carbon-free supply chain.

And internationally, the UK could become more economically competitive in a carbon-free world, demonstrating how industrialized countries can reduce emissions while maintaining the economic power and social well-being of their citizens.

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