LONDON — In the shadow of a noisy, turbulent Brexit, another epic transformation is underway in Britain.
A leading industrial power that built itself on coal and colonialism, Britain is now trying to pivot away from the fossil fuels that powered the industrial age. The government has set a legally binding target to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Some of that change is already in motion: The country is fast ditching coal in favor of wind energy and gas. And this summer, for the first time in more than 130 years, it went two weeks without burning one lump of coal.
The new net-zero target, though, demands a far bigger shift that will likely change everything from the way Britons heat their homes to how they get to work to what food they grow and eat.
The good news for Britain is that climate action enjoys widespread political support in an otherwise polarized society. The governing Conservatives proposed the net-zero target, while the Labour Party recently one-upped them by calling for a 2030 deadline.
“There’s a high degree of consensus that we need to do something, and the U.K. has a moral duty to lead,” said Bryony Worthington, a member of the House of Lords and executive director of the European branch of the Environmental Defense Fund. “We led the industrial revolution.”
Britain’s historical emissions are the fifth highest in the world, according to an analysis by Carbon Brief, a British website that covers climate science and policy.
Nick Bridge, Britain’s senior climate envoy, said his country wants to position itself as “a global green hub.”
Bold promise, meet the mess known as Brexit.
Britain’s economy is slowing precisely at a time when the country will need to invest the equivalent of at least 1 percent of its gross domestic product to meet its net-zero target, according to the Committee on Climate Change, a government advisory body. Moreover, at a time of peak political dysfunction, the government has not implemented the policies needed to get to net zero, nor mapped out how it will pay for the transition.
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“Brexit is a horrible distraction,” Ms. Worthington said. “Politically there’s not enough oxygen to even have a conversation.”
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Glasgow is scheduled to host a crucial round of United Nations climate negotiations next year. With Britain having adopted such a lofty law, it remains to be seen whether the country will have anything to show for it.
At the moment, the country is not on track to meet its earlier target for an 80 percent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels.
That’s not for a lack of knowing what to do.
Alex Kazaglis, an economist who served on the Committee on Climate Change and now heads the energy division at Vivid Economics, a consulting firm, offered to show me some of the challenges on a walk through Central London.
To get to net zero, he said, Britain needs to generate much more electricity than ever before — all of it from non-fossil fuel sources.
There’s already been progress in that area. The power for the lights, computers and teakettles in Mr. Kazaglis’s office increasingly comes from wind and gas, and not coal. That has allowed Britain to halve its emissions from the energy sector in the last decade. Today, the country produces more wind energy by volume than any other and relies on coal for barely 5 percent of its energy. It intends to shutter its remaining coal-fired power plants by 2025.
It also needs stricter rules for buildings. To that end, the governing Conservative Party announced this week that it would require new carbon emissions standards for new homes built in Britain. But the bigger challenge is what to do with the 27 million existing homes, many of which are old and drafty and the vast majority of which are heated with gas-burning boilers and would have to be replaced, Mr. Kazaglis said, with electric heat pumps.
Down the road from the office, we stopped in front of a low-rise brick-fronted public housing complex. The windows and walls are so porous, Mr. Kazaglis said, heat leaks out all winter long. They would require a comprehensive retrofit. How much would that cost? Who would pay for it? The government has not spelled it out.
There were no electric car chargers on the streets yet, nor in the building’s underground parking lot. There was a large bicycle rack. In London offices like his, Mr. Kazaglis said, staff members would “mutiny” if you didn’t offer bike storage.
Many more politically contentious debates loom ahead on the road to net zero. Should Britain expand nuclear power? Should sprawling Heathrow Airport be expanded, given the outsize emissions from aviation? And to meet the 2050 target, how much will come from reducing emissions and how much will have to be captured and buried?
Getting to net zero would require small personal shifts, too, Mr. Kazaglis said, like buying things that last longer and flying less. And, it would require new government regulations to manufacture things in a more energy-efficient way; he pointed to all the glass and steel that goes into the new skyscrapers around us, for instance.
“For a long time, we assumed our intelligent masters would take care of us. That’s not the case,” Mr. Kazaglis said. “It will actually involve some behavior change.”
“You can’t deliver all that through markets,” he added. “You need a sophisticated policy.”
The change was abundantly clear at the Coal Drops Yard, one of the stops on Mr. Kazaglis’s walk through the city. It used to serve as a sprawling depot for the coal that was once ferried through the city by canal, powering everything.
Today the coal yards is an outdoor shopping mall, with a fancy chocolatier, high-end boutiques and a terraced park filled with office workers and toddlers at lunchtime. The geometric frames where gas holders once stood have been refashioned into upscale apartments. The boxy cabs queuing up around the corner at St. Pancras Station included several electric cars that were indistinguishable from the originals, except that they purr. The occasional red city bus rolled by with a camel hump of hydrogen for fuel.
London’s city government is nudging some behavior changes, too. Driving older diesel-powered cars in Central London now costs 24 pounds per day on weekdays. All new taxis that hit the road need to be electric.
Nationwide, the sale of cars that burn fossil fuels is to be banned by 2040. The Committee on Climate Change is recommending that the deadline be brought up to 2030. On that too, there’s no policy in place yet.
Afsheen Kabir Rashid, whose community group helps install solar panels on public housing projects in East London, said the government needed to enable many more of its citizens to embrace greener options that are currently out of their reach. “We need to bring people along the journey with us,” she said. “If done right, it should not mean more costs. It should mean more jobs.”
Then there’s the countryside. Britain needs to convert much of the rolling fields that are used as pasture for cattle and sheep to managed forests, the Committee on Climate Change has recommended. But even on planting trees, the country is way behind what it needs to do. It has planted 10,000 hectares of new forests, far short of the 35,000 hectares that the committee says it needs to plant every year.
Chris Stark, who heads the committee, said the 2050 target is realistic if the government takes concrete steps now. Building the infrastructure takes time. The markets need the right signals to respond.
“It’s absolutely possible,” he said. “We don’t need unicorn technology.”
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An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Britain’s senior climate envoy. He is Nick Bridge, not Bridges.
Somini Sengupta covers international climate issues and is the author of "The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India's Young." @SominiSengupta • Facebook
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