In Depth

Can the UK reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050?

Theresa May makes pledge in new government plan to tackle climate change but critics say financial cost will be too great


The UK will become the first G7 nation to commit to cutting its net greenhouse gas and carbon emissions to zero by 2050, Theresa May has pledged.

The acting prime minister, who stepped down as Tory party leader last week, is today unveiling a legally binding amendment to the Climate Change Act that will “put the UK on the path to end its contribution to climate change” in just over 30 years, Sky News reports.

The plan, which has been widely praised by environmental groups, will see emissions produced by the UK after that deadline offset by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere.

May says that the UK has “led the world to wealth through fossil fuels in the industrial revolution”, so it is “appropriate for Britain to lead in the opposite direction”, reports the BBC.

“We have made huge progress in growing our economy and the jobs market while slashing emissions,” she said. “Now is the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children. We must lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth.”

But not everyone is convinced by the plan, with some experts arguing that the scheme is both too expensive and too little, too late.

How will greenhouse gas emissions be cut?

In 2008, UK MPs set a 2050 target to reduce emissions by 80% under the Climate Change Act. However, the Act is now being amended to the new, “much tougher”, goal, says the BBC.

The broadcaster reports that this means emissions from “homes, transport, farming and industry” will have to be “avoided completely or - in the most difficult examples - offset by planting trees or sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere”.

Last month, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) released a report, on which May’s proposed amendment is based, suggested that a number of reforms could be made at both a personal and governmental level to cut greenhouse gases to zero.

The report stated that a “full decarbonisation of buildings” through changes to heating systems would need to be implemented and that the Government would also need to ensure that all new cars and vans are electric by 2035.

In addition, policies to encourage farming practices that reduce emissions must become mandatory, while biodegradable waste streams must not be sent to landfill after 2025 and must be regulated, the report added.

The CCC says that if other countries followed the UK in its pledge, there is a 50% chance of staying below the recommended 1.5°C temperature rise by 2100.

So is the new target realistic?

ITV News suggests that if the proposed change to legislation gets through Parliament, it would “commit the UK to nothing less than a new industrial revolution”.

“Thirty years seems like a long time, but the shift away from fossil fuels and improvements in energy efficiency that would be required in that period could make this one of the most radical economic and social commitments a civilian government has undertaken in modern times,” the news site says.

Professor Phil Taylor, head of engineering at Newcastle University, says that achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions is “necessary, feasible and cost-effective”, but warns that UK policy is “still way off the mark and the foundations are not in place to be able to meet this target”.

“Even with all the evidence before us we are still opening new coal mines, extending Heathrow Airport and pushing forward with fracking,” he added.

Doubts about the amendment have been raised even within the Government. Chancellor Philip Hammond said last month that tackling the crisis would cost £1trn and “require spending cuts for schools, hospitals and the police force”, The Guardian reports.

He claimed that the plan could lead to industries becoming “economically uncompetitive” without government subsidies.

However, Downing Street offered a strong rebuke to Hammond, insisting that the CCC has already shown that the cost of a net zero carbon economy would “fall within our existing spending plans”.

The head of the Confederation of British Industry, Carolyn Fairbairn, has endorsed the new scheme, saying it “can drive UK competitiveness and secure long-term prosperity”.

“Some sectors will need clear pathways to enable investment in low-carbon technologies, and it is vital that there is cross-government coordination on the policies and regulation needed to deliver a clean future,” she said.


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