UK to set legally binding target for net zero emissions by 2050

The UK is to set a legally binding target to end its contribution to climate change by 2050 Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA

The UK is to set a legally binding target to end its contribution to climate change by 2050, Prime Minister Theresa May has announced.

The Government is laying out legislation in Parliament on Wednesday to set a new target to cut emissions to “net zero” by the middle of the century.

The statutory instrument will amend the existing goal to cut climate pollution by 80% by 2050, which was agreed by MPs under the Climate Change Act in 2008.

The move comes after the Government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change called for the new legal target to be brought in as soon as possible and to urgently ramp up action to cut emissions.

Students take part in a strike for climate change Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

Hitting net zero – a 100% cut in emissions – will mean an end to heating of homes with traditional gas boilers, more green electricity, and a switch from petrol and diesel cars to electric vehicles, walking and cycling.

It could require people to eat less meat and dairy and take fewer flights.

Any remaining pollution in 2050 from areas including aviation will need to be “offset” through measures to cut carbon such as planting trees.

The committee told the Government the move would be in line with commitments to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels under the international Paris Agreement and will provide leadership for other countries on tackling climate change.

Credit: PA Graphics

A leaked letter last week showed the Treasury warning the PM that making the shift to a zero carbon economy would cost at least £1 trillion.

But the committee said it will cost around 1-2% of annual economic output up to 2050 – the same as predicted a decade ago for the 80% target – while the cost of inaction would be many times higher.

The shift, which is achievable with known technologies, will deliver economic opportunities and other benefits, the committee said.

The legislation could require people to fly less Credit: Peter Byrne/PA

In the wake of the committee’s recommendations, scientists, campaigners and health professionals have been urging the Prime Minister to bring in a net zero target before she stands down, as a legacy of her premiership.

Number 10 said the move would boost public health, air quality and nature and will make the UK a leader on climate action, as the first G7 group of major economies to put a net zero target into law.

But it was “imperative” other countries follow suit, so there will be a review within five years to ensure other nations are taking similarly ambitious action, and that British industries are not facing unfair competition.

In the wake of widespread climate strikes by schoolchildren and students, the Government is also setting up a Youth Steering Group for young people to advise it on priorities for environmental action.

Mrs May said: “As the first country to legislate for long-term climate targets, we can be truly proud of our record in tackling climate change.

“Now is the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children.

“Standing by is not an option. Reaching net zero by 2050 is an ambitious target, but it is crucial that we achieve it to ensure we protect our planet for future generations.”

The Government said it would retain the ability to use international carbon credits, which allow the UK to pay to offset its emissions elsewhere in the world.

Any remaining pollution would have to be offset by measures such as planting trees under the move Credit: John Giles/PA

Committee on Climate Change chairman Lord Deben said he was delighted the Government was putting the net zero target to a parliamentary vote and was looking forward to cross-party consensus on the issue.

“This is a major commitment for the coming decades, but we have highlighted the significant benefits of action.

“This is just the first step. The target must now be reinforced by credible UK policies, across government, inspiring a strong response from business, industry and society as a whole.”

Lord Deben also said the Government had not yet formally included international aviation and shipping in the targets, but had acknowledged they needed to be part of the strategy.

Shadow energy secretary Rebecca Long Bailey said: “While this announcement is welcome in theory, in practice it comes from a Conservative government that is off track to meet existing climate targets, that has no plans for legislation or investment needed to cut emissions, and that has dismantled the UK renewable energy sector while pushing fracking.”

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of business group the CBI, said UK companies were “squarely behind” the commitment.

She said: “This legislation is the right response to the global climate crisis, and firms are ready to play their part in combating it.

“Climate leadership can drive UK competitiveness and secure long-term prosperity.”

Gareth Redmond King, head of climate change at the environmental charity WWF, said the announcement was a “crucial first step”.

He said: “If we want future generations to live on a viable planet where the mass extinctions we’re witnessing halt, food security is ensured and coastal regions are safe, then Government must accelerate policies and commit resource to slashing emissions, heat our homes with clean energy and make climate action a priority across all departments.”

Extinction Rebellion, the protest group that brought parts of London to a standstill with demonstrations in April, said the target is “not nearly enough”.

“Let’s not mince words, 2050 is a death sentence: people are already dying and this will only get worse with far off dates,” the group said.