By Anders Lorenzen
The UK will be the first G7 nation to do so, undoubtedly piling pressure on the remaining G7 members, or at least those who see climate change as a severe risk.
The policy announcement raises the climate ambitions of the UK and is an increase on the previous target to cut emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050. This brings the target in line with what on paper the whole world agreed to in 2015 in the Paris Agreement.
This is a significant intention from the country recognized as starting the industrial revolution and the fossil fuel era. The UK was the first country to burn coal for electricity generation and on an industrial level and has recently been causing headlines by going two weeks without burning coal, demonstrating an effective green revolution in the country.
Theresa May’s legacy
Prime Minister Theresa May who will leave office at the end of July said, “Now is the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children. 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.” Many might be surprised at May’s sudden move on climate change at the end of her premiership, one that has been dominated by Brexit, an approach that failed. But the climate move might be a last-ditch attempt to salvage her legacy. She does not want to be remembered as the prime minister who failed on Brexit, but the prime minister who raised her nation`s ambitions on climate change.
Not soon enough
Carbon emissions are at a record high, and some campaigners still believe that the UK is not going far enough. The climate protest group, Extinction Rebellion which took over central London for two weeks in April wants a much earlier date, as soon as 2030: “Given that it is now agreed it is not just possible but necessary to reach carbon neutrality, why are we waiting until 2050? Politicians only seem able to contemplate action on climate change when thinking about their legacy. If the current system encourages politicians to suppress their true feelings about ambitious action, then that is going to require systemic solutions. Let’s reform democracy and listen to the people: we desperately need a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice” the group said in a statement.
And while Greenpeace welcomed the move, they had some criticism too: “As the birthplace of the industrial revolution, it is right that the UK is the world’s first major economy to commit to completely end its contribution to climate change, but trying to shift the burden to developing nations through International Carbon Credits undermines that commitment. This type of offsetting has a history of failure and is not, according to the government’s climate advisors, cost-efficient.” Together with Greenpeace, other campaigners also criticised the government’s continued reliance on international carbon credits to help meet the target – a move some see as a loophole that will allow polluters to stay in business.
Last month Britain’s independent climate advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, recommended that the country moved to the new target, which implies sweeping changes in energy, transport and agriculture, advice the government has followed.
It would require drastic changes to how the economy is run. For instance, new petrol and diesel cars might need to be phased out by at least 2035, the committee said. Households would also need to be weaned off natural gas heating and switch to low-carbon alternatives. Although the new target has cast Britain as a relative climate leader, according to campaigners, the government’s decisions to back projects such as a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport and fracking have raised questions about the depth of its commitment.
An opportunity for business
Eyes will also be directed towards the business community and how they will approach this. Many in the business community might see this as an economic opportunity. Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, a sustainability initiative said: “The message from business is clear: the UK will strengthen the competitiveness of its economy by being the first major economy to legislate an ambitious net zero target – as long as this is supported by a comprehensive policy package”
And Matt Rooney, Engineering Policy Adviser at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, stated “The UK has made great progress in reducing emissions, in particular from the power sector, but going further will necessitate a major upgrade of our energy infrastructure.
But this should also be seen as an opportunity. In being the first country to legally commit to becoming a net zero greenhouse gas emissions economy, we can become more innovative and reap the benefits of leading on the development of the novel technologies of tomorrow.”
As the UK prepares to leave the European Union (EU), it will be hoping its decision will encourage other governments to follow suit before 2020, when countries are due to ratchet up their goals under the Paris Agreement. The government said a further assessment would happen within five years to discern the extent to which other countries are adopting the 2050 target. Laurence Tubiana, a former French diplomat who was among the architects of the Paris Agreement welcomed the move: “It is a very important signal within the G7 countries that a country decided to do this at the highest level.”
Depending on when you measure, global average temperatures have already risen about one degree Celsius. Scientists warn further increases risk triggering tipping points that could render swathes of the globe uninhabitable, devastating farming and drowning coastal cities.
Net zero to become law
May wants to incorporate this new target into British law before she steps down, putting it before a vote to be included in the legally binding Climate Change Act.
The former Foreign Secretary and London Mayor, Boris Johnson is the frontrunner to replace May, a politician who has flirted with climate denialism and who has pledged to slash regulations once Brexit happens. This leaves many people wondering how serious the UK’s next prime minister is with regard to combatting the climate crisis. This is perhaps the reason that May is in a hurry to get this target enshrined into law before leaving office.