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UK vows to be zero-carbon by 2050, but what about onshore wind?

Prime Minister Theresa May announces that Britain will "eradicate its net contribution to climate change by 2050", but questions remain over how this will be achieved

The UK will struggle to reach zero net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 — as the government announced it will do today — without embracing onshore wind.

“If you want to do it at the cheapest cost for consumers, you need onshore wind in your low-carbon energy mix,” a spokesman for RenewableUK told Recharge.

“The decarbonisation of our economy, transport and heating systems can all be achieved through existing technology but that has to include onshore wind if we are to decarbonise by 2050,” said Lindsay McQuade, chief executive of ScottishPower Renewables.

With the exception of a few 'remote island' projects, onshore wind is currently locked out of the UK's contract-for-difference (CfD) renewables support mechanism, while onshore projects in England also face tougher planning hurdles introduced by the ruling Conservative government.

'Build 75GW of offshore wind for a zero-emissions UK'

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Prime Minister Theresa May announced today that the UK “will eradicate its net contribution to climate change by 2050”.

“This legislation will mean that the UK is on track to become the first G7 country to legislate for net zero emissions, with other major economies expected to follow suit,” the government said.

The legislation is a so-called “statutory instrument” — an amendment to the Climate Change Act 2008 that becomes law without debate, unless objections are raised by Members of Parliament within 40 days.

Last year, only 598MW of onshore wind was installed in the UK, the lowest level since 2011, despite the facts that there are around 4.5GW of shovel-ready projects in the UK and that the technology is the country’s cheapest clean-energy source.

On top of this, 5.8GW of new nuclear plants that were due to be installed in the UK over the next decade were recently shelved by their developers due to high costs and uncertainty over future profit, leaving the UK with a massive energy shortfall in the mid-2020s.

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Yet despite 75% of the UK public being in favour of onshore wind, according to national surveys, the government said in February that it would stick to its policies on onshore wind and continue to prioritise offshore wind, as set out in its 2017 election manifesto.

“To deliver this race to zero we will double the amount of electricity we use, therefore we need to quadruple the amount of renewable energy we make," said ScottishPower chief executive Keith Anderson. "That’s going to require bold innovation alongside market and regulatory frameworks that encourage significant and sustained investment.”

The government-appointed Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recently released a report that set out the argument for the UK becoming zero-carbon by 2050, saying that the doubling of electricity demand could be met through 75GW of offshore wind, without putting forward a similar figure for onshore wind.

However, in a technical annex to the main report, the CCC wrote: "Over the period to 2035, up to 35GW onshore wind, 45GW offshore wind and 54GW solar PV could be needed. Further deployment is likely to be needed over the period to 2050. The UK's onshore wind, offshore wind and solar PV resource are likely to be more than adequate to deliver an expanded and decarbonised electricity system to 2050."

Another controversy within the plans announced today is that the government will include international carbon credits in the calculation of the UK’s GHG emissions, meaning that it will effectively buy negative emissions from renewables projects in developing countries to offset its own emissions. This means that the UK may still be emitting greenhouse gases by 2050.

While welcoming the Prime Minister’s statement, Greenpeace said: “As the birthplace of the industrial revolution, it is right that the UK is the world's first major economy to commit to completely end its contribution to climate change, but trying to shift the burden to developing nations through International Carbon Credits undermines that commitment. This type of offsetting has a history of failure and is not, according the government’s climate advisors, cost efficient.”

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