What does the net zero climate target mean and why do we need it?

The UK has been set a target to drastically reduce emissions over the next 30 years. Credit: PA

Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that the UK will set a legal target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

This means people could see widespread changes in their daily lives, with changes potentially afoot in the way homes are heated, what we eat and the way we get around.

Even the countryside could look different, with more trees planted to absorb carbon-dioxide and mixed farming replacing the monocultural landscapes we see today.

Recent protests and reports warning ecosystems are under threat have put climate change into the public eye.

But why is this all necessary and what would happen if we don't stick to this target?

  • What does net zero mean?

The target is to cut emissions to net zero. Credit: PA

It means cutting emissions to as close to zero as possible.

Any emissions made would be offset by absorbing the equivalent amount.

This involves using methods to take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere to offset the remaining pollution.

For example, this could be done by planting trees that absorb carbon dioxide.

  • Why do we need to aim for zero emissions?

Trees absorb carbon dioxide and could be important in cutting emissions to net zero. Credit: PA

As more greenhouse gases lead to more warming, stabilising the planet’s temperature at any level will need global emissions to fall to zero overall.

A key UN report last year said that to stop temperatures rising by more than 1.5C in the long term, countries need to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, with steep cuts in other greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide or methane.

  • What happens if we do not do it?

Melting ice sheets could push the sea level up. Credit: PA

We have already experienced 1C of warming, and current commitments by countries to cut their emissions leave the world on track for rises of 3C by 2100.

Yet temperature rises of more than 1.5C are likely to increase extreme weather events like heatwaves and flooding, cause greater losses in crop yields and wildlife, and raise the risk of large-scale irreversible impacts such as melting ice sheets, which will push up sea levels.

  • We are just one country, so how much of a role can the UK play?

Greenhouse gas emissions are on the way down. Credit: PA Graphics

While the UK’s current emissions make up only a small percentage of the overall global output, the country led the industrial revolution and has made a major contribution to greenhouse gas pollution over time.

Cutting all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 will meet the UK’s commitments under the Paris Agreement to limit global warming and provide leadership for other countries to follow suit.

  • Can it be done?

Temperature rises of more than 1.5C are likely to increase extreme weather events such as flooding Credit: PA

The Government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change recommended last month that ministers should set the target as soon as possible.

In its recommendations, it concluded that it can be done with known technologies and within the expected economic cost that Parliament accepted when it set the current 2050 target for an 80% cut on 1990 levels.

But it will require “clear, stable and well-designed policies” to reduce emissions further across the economy without delay, the experts say.

And moving to a zero emissions economy must be fair on workers and consumers.

  • What will it involve?

Solar panels can help improve the energy efficiency of homes Credit: PA

Phasing out greenhouse gases over the next three decades will require changes in all areas of the economy including more low-carbon power, electric vehicles, tackling emissions from aviation and industry and changes to how land is used and buildings are heated.

The Government has said it will retain its ability to use international carbon credits to meet the goal, which pay to offset emissions with reductions elsewhere in the world – a loophole campaigners want to see closed.

Dialing down your thermostat to below 19C could help reduce emissions. Credit: PA

Active engagement from households to reduce their carbon footprint will be vital to achieve net zero, the Committee on Climate Change has said.

People can choose to walk, cycle or take public transport or make their next car an electric one, and minimise flying.

Other ways to reduce your carbon footprint include improving the energy efficiency of your home through insulation and double glazing, setting thermostats no higher than 19C, and installing low-carbon heating systems.

Eating a healthy diet, such as cutting down on beef, lamb and dairy, can also help tackle emissions, as can reducing food waste, buying peat-free compost and sharing rather than buying items like power tools that are not often used.