Net-zero 2050: UK needs ‘deeds not words’

The UK has taken up the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation and committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But with the country on course to miss its fourth and fifth carbon budgets, significant action will be required to meet the new goal.  

Carbon emissions
Carbon emissions
Green World

The UK Government has announced today (12 June) that it will update its emissions reduction target to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The previous 2050 target, set out in the Climate Change Act of 2008, was an 80 per cent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels – but there are fears that this goal is not ambitious enough to keep global temperature rises below 1.5 degrees celsius, in accordance with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

The new target represents the first time any G7 country has set down legislation to reach net zero, though other nations have already taken that step, including Sweden by 2045, Norway by 2030, and most recently Finland, by 2035. The only countries to have already achieved net-zero emissions are those with massive forest cover such as Bhutan, in South Asia, and possibly countries that share the Amazon rainforest.

Net zero means that greenhouse gas emissions from homes, transport and industry will need to be cut to zero as far as possible, and where they cannot be cut completely, they will need to be offset by carbon capture methods, such as the planting of trees.

This tougher target was recommended in a recent report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), published on 2 May, which advised that a net-zero target would be achievable at a cost of 1-2 per cent of GDP, the same cost associated with an 80 per cent reduction. The report states: ‘Now is the right moment to set a more ambitious goal. Achieving a net-zero target by the middle of the century is in line with the UK’s commitment under the Paris Agreement, the pact which the UK and the rest of the world signed in 2015 to curb dramatically the polluting gases that cause climate change.’

The CCC also recommended that Scotland should set its net-zero date at 2045 and Wales should aim to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 95 per cent by 2050. Scotland has moved to implement the CCC’s recommendation, while the Welsh Government announced that it would be going a step further, also aiming for net-zero by 2050.

While the news of the UK Government’s commitment has been welcomed, the country is already at risk of falling short of its upcoming carbon budgets, which are restrictions on the amount of greenhouse gases the UK can legally emit over five five-year periods.

While the UK has met the first two budgets (covering 2008 to 2017) and is on track to outperform the third (2018 to 2022), the CCC has estimated that at their current rate, UK emissions will exceed the limits of the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has forecast that the UK will go over its fourth carbon budget (2023 to 2027) by 139 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e).

Lucas: “Pledging a 2050 target is easy when it’s 30 years away."

Therefore, while a net-zero commitment is welcome, it needs to be backed up by solid action. “Pledging a 2050 target is easy when it’s 30 years away,” commented Green MP Caroline Lucas during Prime Minister’s Questions. She asked whether the Prime Minister would commit to taking action to cancel the expansion of Heathrow Airport, scrap fracking and invest in public transport. “If we want a positive climate legacy we need deeds not words,” Lucas added. Prime Minister May responded that enshrining the new target into law was evidence of the action being taken.

A Green New Deal for climate action

The CCC report recommends urgent investment in low-carbon electricity and heating, energy-efficient house building, electric vehicles and increased tree planting, as well as a ban on biodegradable waste going to landfill and a 70 per cent recycling target across all of the UK by 2025. These key measures identified by the CCC represent massive opportunity for innovation and job creation along environmental lines.

The Green Party has long called for a Green New Deal to channel funds into clean renewable technologies and energy-efficient buildings. In March, Lucas and Labour MP Clive Lewis launched what is seen as the first attempt to get a Green New Deal debated in Parliament in the form of the Decarbonisation and Economic Strategy Bill, which would require ministers to introduce a 10-year strategy for public investment, designed to decarbonise the economy and tackle unemployment at the same time.

Commenting on the announcement of the new target, Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley acknowledged that a fixed zero-carbon date could present “positive possibilities” for businesses, but noted that the UK’s target was up for review in five years ‘to confirm that other countries are taking similarly ambitious action’.

Bartley said: “With Finland setting the goal of 2035, businesses there will be racing forward with new technologies and approaches. Yet our government is planning a review of the target in five years, so British business is not being given the stable policy framework that it needs to take advantage of the huge possibilities offered by the need to reshape our economy and society for the climate emergency.

“Instead in Britain we have had see-sawing policy and sudden decisions, such as cutting and ending the feed-in tariff and removing the planned zero-carbon homes standard, that have left businesses around the country stranded.”

Carbon credits: Reliance on ‘dodgy loopholes’

At PMQs today, Lucas also took issue with the use of international carbon credits in the race to net-zero. The UK will retain the right to purchase carbon credits, which are a means by which countries can offset their emissions. One credit represents a tonne of CO2 removed or reduced from the atmosphere as a result of emissions reduction projects; industrialised countries like the UK can purchase credits by paying for emissions reduction projects in other countries.

Lucas said: “The CCC recommended that the emission reduction effort needs to be done here at home, not outsourced to poorer countries. Carbon offsetting slows decarbonisation [and] it deprives poorer countries of the low-hanging fruit that they need in order to meet their own reduction targets.”

Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, said using international carbon credits was akin to “trying to shift the burden to developing nations”. He added: “This type of offsetting has a history of failure and is not, according to the government’s climate advisers, cost-efficient.”

Lucas asked Business Secretary Greg Clark whether he would “review the decision to rely on dodgy loopholes and make sure that domestic action is all done here at home.” Clark responded that the Climate Change Act includes the use of credits and the government wouldn’t be repealing this part of the Act, but added that it would respect the recommendation of the CCC that the UK ‘aim’ to not make use of credits.