Climate change: What does UK's net zero goal mean and how are we aiming to achieve it?

London Mayor Boris Johnson along with pupils from King's Avenue Primary School helps to plant a tree in Brixton, south London, at the launch of his pledge for 10,000 new street trees in the city.  Tim Ireland/PA
Boris Johnson helps to plant a tree with schoolchildren in London. Credit: Tim Ireland/PA

By Multimedia Producer Elisa Menendez

Britain's aim is to achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 and as COP26 fast approaches, all eyes are firmly set on the UK’s next steps to reach its goal.

The law for the net zero target was passed in June 2019 and Britain was the first major economy in the world to legally set such a goal – a move which requires extensive policy change.

The UK was also one of nearly 200 nations to sign the historic Paris Agreement in 2015, pledging to help towards the goal of limiting global warming to well below 2C but preferably 1.5C.

As Glasgow prepares to welcome world leaders at the 26th Climate Change Conference (COP26) in late October, the host nation faces intense pressure to lead the way after the UN issued an urgent climate “red alert” for humanity.

The COP26 climate conference - what you need to know

What is COP26? When and where will it be?

Each year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets at what is called the Conference of the Parties (abbreviated as COP) to discuss the world's progress on climate change and how to tackle it.

COP26 is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties summit which will be held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November.

Who is going?

Leaders of the 197 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994 - are invited to the summit.

These are some of the world leaders that will be attending COP26:

  • US President Joe Biden, climate envoy John Kerry, climate adviser and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, and 10 other US cabinet officials.

  • Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the days leading up to COP26, Mr Morrison committed Australia to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Prince Charles, Prince William, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge are also attending. The Queen has withdrawn from visiting after being advised by her doctors to rest - she will address the conference virtually instead.

China's President Xi Jinping, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are among the leaders that have decided not to travel to Glasgow.

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What is it hoping to achieve?

1. Achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels - Countries are being encouraged to set ambitious 2030 emissions targets. They are also encouraged to accelerate the phase-out of coal, clamp down on deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles and encourage investment in renewables.

2. Protect natural habitats and communities from climate change disasters

3. Finances for a greener future - In 2009, developed countries were asked to keep to their promises to contribute at least $100 billion (£72.5 billion) per year by 2020 to protect the planet. In 2015, it was agreed that the goal would be extended to 2025.

However, new analysis shows the goal is unlikely to have been met last year and is on track to fall short in 2021 and 2022.

4. Getting all countries and organisations to work together to tackle the climate crisis

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What does net zero mean?

A country reaches net zero when the amount of greenhouse gases emitted is the same as that taken out from the atmosphere, a process also known as “carbon neutrality”.

The term “gross zero” is also heard a lot, which would mean reducing all carbon emissions to zero - but experts say this is not a realistic target.

Britain's net zero target is one of the most ambitious across the globe and it is one the government hopes to achieve while simultaneously growing the economy.

What is the importance of net zero?

Climate change has been triggered by an excess of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, in the atmosphere. The gases trap the heat from the sun and warm up the planet.

Working towards net zero is crucial because it is widely considered the best way to tackle climate change by reducing global warming.

Sam Fankhauser, professor of climate economics and policy at the University of Oxford, tells ITV News: “If you want to curtail temperature rises, you do need that net zero balance at some point.”

The past five years have been the hottest on record since 1850, according to a recent report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

People sunbathing in St James's Park, London, during a hot day this summer. Credit: Yui Mok/PA

Scientists found the rate of sea level rise has nearly tripled compared to 1901-1971, and the global surface temperature between 2011-2020 was 1.09C higher than from 1850 to 1900.

An increase of 1C may not sound like much, but we are already starting to see the devastating effects of global warming, with the melting of Polar ice, rising sea levels, animal species going extinct and more extreme weather conditions leading to floods, droughts, hurricanes and typhoons.

As the Earth’s temperature continues to increase, these effects will only worsen, putting humans and the Earth’s rich biodiversity at severe risk.

The IPCC said the Paris Climate pledge of keeping global temperatures well below 2C will be broken this century unless all countries work quickly to make huge carbon emission cuts – and this is where net zero targets step in.

How is net zero achieved and how is the UK aiming to achieve it?

There are two main ways of reaching net zero – reducing existing emissions and actively removing greenhouse gases.

According to Professor Fankhauser, who is also a research director at Oxford Net Zero, there are six “steps” to reducing emissions. They are:

  • Electricity generation

“Once you’ve cleaned up electricity, you can decarbonise other industries,” he says, adding that this can then be used for electric cars, transport, in buildings and replacing boilers with heat pumps.

He says this has started to happen in the UK and worldwide - but a lot of investment is still needed “so we are not out of the woods, but we are kind of getting there”.

Wind turbines in East Yorkshire at a Drax power station. Credit: John Giles/PA
  • Transport

Transport is the biggest source of emissions in the UK. While more eco-friendly solutions like electric cars are becoming more popular, transport is not yet at the level of renewable energy in terms of the cost and uptake, he says, “but we are close”.

  • Buildings

"We kind of know the technological solutions we need - and elsewhere in Europe they work - in Switzerland where I grew up and in Scandinavia, heat pumps are the norm,” says Professor Fankhauser.

“But in the UK, it turns out people don't like them - they like boilers, so we have the behavioural problem of acceptability."

He also says the government should be putting heat pumps into all new builds - as a building has to be prepared for one - but they are not.

“It's completely daft to build those houses and not make them zero carbon because 10 years down the line you'll have to refurbish the house,” he adds.

Insulating your home can be costly - but could reduce your bills. Credit: Unsplash
  • Energy-intensive industries

Technological solutions are starting to emerge to make energy-intensive industries zero carbon, says the expert.

But there is a "long way" to go until they can be introduced as they still need to be proven at a commercial level and then costs must be brought down.

  • Agriculture

The professor believes addressing the issues around agricultural emissions released via cows and fertilisers, for example, may mostly come down to citizens in the long-term.

"We haven't really tackled issues around agriculture - part of the solution will probably have to be a behavioural change much more than the other industries,” says Professor Fankhauser.

"We might ask people to change their eating habits and that's going to be controversial, but it's happening.

“If you look at your average supermarket, the shelves with vegan and vegetarian food are much more prominent than they were a couple of years ago."

  • Aviation

Like energy-intensive industries, the expert says technological solutions are emerging to make planes more green - but they are “not there yet”.

  • Removing emissions

The professor says if all the six steps above are achieved, emissions will be reduced quickly - but not fast enough.

So, measures must be taken to remove greenhouse gases, such as planting trees, burning biomass and using technology like carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince of Wales plant a tree at Balmoral Cricket Pavilion Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA

How could measures to reach net zero affect Britons’ everyday lives?

The job landscape will perhaps undergo the biggest change, as the UK aims to continue to move away from carbon-led industries and invest in new long-term green roles.

Transport is the largest source of CO2 emissions across the country, meaning many will be encouraged to cut out car travel altogether when possible, or make the shift from fuel to electric vehicles.

"With electric cars, I think 15 years down the line we will look back and say were we really driving something like this? It will be in the same way that you look at the brick phones in the 90s,” adds the professor.

Gas home heating – which warms up 86% of UK households - will likely be gradually phased out, replacing fossil fuel-powered boilers with eco-friendly heat pumps.

What has been done to make sure the UK is on track with its target?

In 2008, the Climate Change Act committed the UK to drive down carbon emissions by 80% - relative to 1990 levels – by 2050. In 2019, this was amended to achieve 100% net zero by the same year.

In April this year, the government ramped up its goal and pledged to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035.

This would keep the UK in line with the commitments it made when it signed up to the Paris Agreement to keep global warming under 2C, with hopes of setting a global example to persuade other countries to commit more.

Break-down of carbon budgets which shows how off-track the government is with its net zero target.

The Climate Change Act requires governments to set legally binding Carbon Budgets which act as stepping stones to meet the 2050 target.

They are designed to keep Britain on track by setting five-year caps on greenhouse emissions and map out the best financial route to achieve them.

The budgets are set 12 years in advance so policy makers, businesses and members of the public have enough time to prepare.

The sixth Carbon Budget commits the government to limit emissions over a five-year period from 2033 to 2037. If achieved, this would mean the UK would be more than three quarters of the way to reaching net zero by 2050.

Citroen's tiny electric car Credit: Citroen

Is the UK on track to meet the 2050 target?

No. According to the independent Climate Change Committee (CCC), the UK met the first and second Carbon Budgets and is on track to outperform the third.

But it is currently not set to meet the fourth, fifth or sixth budgets. The CCC said in order to make its 2050 goal, governments must “introduce more challenging measures”.

Total emissions of greenhouse gases in the UK between 1990 and 2018.

Professor Fankhauser said he is positive good progress is being made with transport, clean electricity, and the decarbonisation of the power sector but “everything else is effectively still in the balance."

"We will be net zero, whether its 2050, 2060 or even 2070 - that's the question,” he said.

"The net zero train has left the station, but it's whether it's going at the right speed for the climate."