The UK government has announced radical new climate change commitments that bring forward the current target for reducing carbon emissions by nearly 15 years. The commitments set the UK on course to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 and will become law by the end of June 2021. The government has acted on the advice of its independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) to adopt the emissions cut, which is based on 1990 levels.
CCC’s chief executive, Chris Stark said:
“I am delighted at this news; this is an important and historic decision. In committing to cut emissions by almost 80% in 2035, the UK has taken its place at the forefront of global efforts to reach net-zero, crucial in the fight against climate change. By implementing our recommendations in full, the Government’s decision rests on the most comprehensive ever assessment of the path to a fully decarbonised economy.”
Setting this goal in law gives the green light to government, business, and people up and down the country to get behind the actions needed to get there. It means that every decision made from now on must be the right one for the climate.
The new target builds on the greenhouse gas emission goal of net zero by 2050 that was set by the UK in 2019 in line with the 2015 Paris climate agreement which called on countries to keep the global temperature rise as close to 1.5 Celsius as possible. The new legislation will mean that the UK is more than three-quarters of the way there by 2035.
The government’s announcement comes just days after China and the United States agreed that stronger pledges were required to tackle climate change.
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UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said:
“We want to continue to raise the bar on tackling climate change, and that’s why we’re setting the most ambitious target to cut emissions in the world.”
The UK’s ambitious climate change target places the UK in a world leading position and firmly on the road to becoming a net zero producer.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has forecast a major surge in CO2 emissions from energy this year as the world recovers from the pandemic. The new legislation is timely and has been welcomed by green groups although they would like to see more detailed action plans.
The new timetable will need the UK to speed up the fundamental restructuring of the way it powers its homes, cars, and factories, what it does to dispose of carbon dioxide and how it feeds its people. Reaching the climate targets will require more electric cars, low carbon heating, renewable electricity, more tree planting and will include cutting down on meat and dairy. Notably, for the first-time climate law will be extended to cover international aviation and shipping. Historically, emissions reductions only included those within the UK borders.
Reaching the UK’s climate targets will require life-style changes greater than ever before. Homes will need to be better insulated and people will be encouraged to drive less and walk and cycle more. Aviation is likely to become more expensive for frequent flyers.
Though great strides have been made away from coal and towards renewable energy such as offshore wind and solar these are relatively easy cuts to make, the biggest challenge lies in decarbonising the transport system, household energy and food production. At the same time, a huge increase in electricity from the grid to provide energy for electric cars and electric heating systems will be required.
Leo Murray of the climate charity, Possible, called the announcement “fantastic” but added:
“We’re not on track to meet previous climate commitments and in many ways the government is still failing.”
Markedly, some of the actions taken by the government recently appear to be going in the opposite direction to what it needs to achieve for the climate goals set, with for example, the scrapping of the Green Homes grant which was supposed to insulate and provide low-carbon heating for thousands of homes, the continued support for airport expansion and the pushing forward of a £27bn roads budget.
Environmentalists have welcomed the government’s action but have warned that ministers had typically failed to achieve previous targets set by the CCC. They have also called for the Chancellor Rishi Sunak to clearly show how the transition is to be funded.
Greenpeace said that the building of new roads and runways would have to stop.
They stated that:
“Targets are much easier to set than they are to meet, so the hard work begins now.”
Chair of the environmental think tank E3G, Tom Burke explained what policy changes were needed to achieve the climate goal:
“The most important thing, I think, is for the prime minister to focus his policy, around energy efficiency, around wind and solar, and around storage of electricity and the management of the grid.”
The CCC report advised that investment in low carbon must scale up to £50bn a year in the UK, adding that in time fuel savings from more efficient equipment will cancel out the investment costs. They believe that around 1% of GDP, national wealth, would need to be spent shifting away from fossil fuels over the next 30 years.
Chair of the CCC, Lord Deben said:
“The implication of this path is clear: the utmost focus is required from government over the next 10 years. If policy is not scaled up across every sector, if business is not encouraged to invest, if the people of the UK are not engaged in this challenge – the UK will not deliver net zero by 2050. The 2020s must be the decisive decade of progress and action.”
By legislating for such a strict new target in less than 15 years’ time the UK Prime Minister has indicated that he is taking the threat of climate change seriously. Though campaigners remain concerned about progress towards existing targets being too slow, the Prime Minister has set a path for rapid behavioural changes from households and businesses.