More than Zero: why Net Zero alone won’t save the planet - and what will

Speech by Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, to the Whitehall and Industry Group on 16 March 2021

Sir James Bevan

There’s nothing more important than tackling the climate emergency. And the most important organisations doing that are government and business. So it’s great to be here at the Whitehall and Industry Group to talk about the most important thing there is to the most important audience there is.

Let me start with a word from one of the most successful businesspeople ever: Bill Gates. In his new book ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ he says this:

"There are two numbers you need to know about climate change: 51 billion and zero. The former is the number of tons of greenhouse gases typically added to the atmosphere each year as a result of human activities. The latter is the number of tons we need to get to by 2050 in order to avert a climate crisis."

With some humility towards one of the world’s most brilliant business leaders, let me add that there is one more thing you need to know about Net Zero, and it’s this: getting there will not be enough on its own to save our planet. We can and must get to net zero. But if we want to thrive in a climate-changed world we need not only to stop putting more carbon into the atmosphere but to adapt how we live so that we are resilient to the irrevocable changes carbon has already wrought in our climate and those still to come.

The bottom line is that Net Zero alone is not enough to save our planet. To do that we need Net Zero Plus. And the plus is adaptation: making ourselves resilient and ready to live safely and well in a climate changed world.

The problem

As I said last month to another group of people with a direct interest in the climate emergency, the insurance industry, unless we act now, then in the reasonable worst case climate change will produce much higher sea levels, taking out most of the world’s cities and making much of the rest of our land unusable; bring much more extreme weather, which will kill more people through drought, flooding, wildfires and heatwaves than most wars have; collapse our ecosystems, take out the infrastructure on which our civilisation depends, and destroy the basis of the modern economy and modern society. So the stakes are pretty high.

The first half of the solution: Net Zero

The good news is that we know exactly what we have to do to avoid this. First, we need to mitigate the extent of climate change. That’s where Net Zero comes in. We can reduce the speed and extent of climate change by reducing the amount of carbon and other greenhouse gasses we put into the atmosphere; and we can reduce the damage they are doing by investing in carbon sinks – trees, grass, peat bogs and so on – that take carbon out of the atmosphere and lock it up so it does no damage. That is how we will get to Net Zero: the point at which we are taking as much or more carbon out of the atmosphere as we are putting into it, and at that point we will no longer be doing what humanity has been doing since the start of the industrial revolution: contributing to dangerous climate change.

The Environment Agency is playing its part in this mitigation. We are helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions by regulating many of the sectors involved (power stations, landfill sites, etc). We are running the new UK Emissions Trading Scheme which has replaced the EU version with a new cap and trade scheme which will progressively reduce the carbon output of our aviation and heavy industries. We are supporting the introduction of renewable/low carbon technology (hydropower, tidal barrages, anaerobic digestion, etc) through our regulatory permitting process.

And we are seeking to lead by example, by setting ourselves the goal of becoming a net zero organisation by 2030. We plan to achieve that by reducing our carbon emissions by at least 45% by 2030, and by neutralising the effect of our remaining emissions through tree planting and other measures that will lock up carbon harmlessly and deliver multiple other benefits like reduced flood risk.

Hitting our net zero 2030 target is going to be hard, and we have deliberately made it harder for ourselves by adopting a tough, internationally recognised definition of net zero: including not just the carbon we produce ourselves but also the much larger amount of carbon produced through our supply chain.

That will be a huge challenge. The EA’s current carbon footprint is 273,000 tonnes a year. Over half of that (54%) comes from construction – mostly building flood defences. The next big chunk (11%), comes from our vehicle fleet. 6% comes from pumping water, either out of people’s homes when they flood or around the country to help reduce drought risk. Another 6% comes from our IT. And 5% is commuting and homeworking. We’ll need to reduce all of these emissions significantly to get to net zero.

But like those of you in business who have made a similar commitment to net zero, we have to get there while still achieving all the outcomes our organisations exist to deliver. The Environment Agency is not going to stop building flood defences, pumping water out of people’s homes, travelling to the places we need to operate in, heating our buildings, using energy or all the other things we need to do to serve the public. Instead we are going to have to find new ways to do all these things which produce much lower or preferably zero carbon.

There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that we don’t yet know how we are going to do all of this, which is why we – and I suspect many of you - are in the market for sharing the best ideas, learning from others, and working in partnership to crack the issues we haven’t yet cracked.

The good news is that we do know how to get much of the way there, for example with lower carbon concrete and a sustainable vehicle fleet, both of which we are already introducing into our own operations. There’s other good news: the challenge of getting to Net Zero is driving a huge amount of innovation, growth, efficiency, and the right kind of disruption; and setting that target has been hugely motivational for our staff, all of whom are contributing their own ideas on how to get there.

Why Net Zero is not enough

However, getting to Net Zero is not enough on its own. That’s because some irrevocable climate change has already happened, and because even if the world was to stop tonight all its carbon emissions, the effects of the emissions that have already happened will continue to make themselves felt for decades.

Global average temperatures have already warmed 1˚C above preindustrial temperatures, and we’re already seeing evidence of more frequent and more extreme flooding, faster and more extreme coastal erosion; more frequent and more extreme droughts, water shortages and wildfires; and potentially permanent damage to habitats, plants, wildlife and cultural heritage.

In all future climate scenarios, however fast we move in getting to Net Zero, we’ll experience a continued rise in sea level well into the next century, due to the long response time of sea levels to past emissions of greenhouse gases. Average sea level has already risen by around 16 centimetres since 1900 and could increase by over a metre by the end of this century. EA and Met Office research shows that under all greenhouse gas emission scenarios, sea levels are expected to continue to rise to 2300, possibly by as much as 4.5 metres.

So even with the ambitious global and national actions we all want to see to reduce emissions, some further climate change is now inevitable. That is why as a nation we need to be climate ready so that we are resilient to the future hazards and potential shocks that would otherwise impact our economy, our prosperity, and our lifestyle.

The other half of the solution: adapt and thrive

When I was growing up in the 1970s and the Cold War was a reality, the government ran a public information campaign to tell us all how to cope with nuclear attack, called Protect And Survive. Those days are thankfully behind us, and it was always a moot point whether that was the best response to the existential threat of nuclear attack. But if we want to respond to the existential threat we face today – the climate emergency – then we could adopt a variation on that slogan: Adapt and Thrive.

We know how to adapt. We need to design and build our infrastructure, our cities and our economy so that they are resilient to the effects of the changing climate. The Environment Agency is doing those things, by building flood defences, helping plan better cities and manage droughts.

But the point is not just to survive. If we adapt right we can thrive too. That’s because climate adaptation offers all of us, including every single business, a world of new opportunities. There are economic opportunities: to innovate and drive growth, and many companies are seizing those. But the most exciting opportunity of all is the opportunity to create a better world: to build back better when flooding or drought damages homes and businesses; to create cleaner, greener cities which are more beautiful and better to live in than the ones we have now; to ensure that when it rains heavily our roads and railways don’t grind to a halt and our sewage systems don’t flush directly into rivers; to enhance nature at the same time as we lock up more carbon; and so on.

Doing both together

So Net Zero and adaptation are two sides of the same coin. We need both, and the best of all interventions are those that do both at the same time. Example: the recent Keeping Rivers Cool project, under which the EA worked with partners to plant trees along several of our rivers. That has helped lock up more carbon, a mitigation helping us towards Net Zero. But it has also produced, as it was designed to do, rivers which are shadier and cooler: a critical adaptation for salmon and other aquatic wildlife vulnerable to a warmer climate. Even better, it has done something else too, impossible to quantify but just as valuable: enhanced the beauty of our natural landscape.

Conclusion: Net Zero and Adaptation need to go hand in hand. Net zero is about making things less bad than they would have been, and that is a noble and vital endeavour. Adaptation is about making things better than they are, and that is an inspiring goal to which we can all subscribe. By doing them both together we can do what we all want to do and what the Environment Agency exists to do: create a better place for people and wildlife.

Environment Agency
Sir James Bevan