Theresa May commits to net zero UK carbon emissions by 2050 – but aviation not properly included in that
Theresa May has sought to cement some legacy in the weeks before she steps down as prime minister by enshrining in law a commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, making Britain the first major economy to do so.
The commitment, to be made in an amendment to the Climate Change Act laid in parliament on Wednesday, would make the UK the first member of the G7 group of industrialised nations to legislate for net zero emissions, Downing Street said.
Environmental groups welcomed the goal but expressed disappointment that the plan would allow the UK to achieve it in part through international carbon credits, something Greenpeace said would “shift the burden to developing nations”.
Last week No 10 dismissed claims from the chancellor, Philip Hammond, that such a target would cost £1tn and could thus require spending cuts to public services.
With May departing as prime minister next month, as soon as her successor is chosen, she has stepped up efforts on policy areas sidelined by Brexit, including new spending commitments, efforts to tackle modern slavery and the environment.
The 2050 target, in an amendment being put down as a statutory instrument, meaning it does not require a vote of MPs, will be one of the most ambitious such goals set by a major polluting nation.
France proposed net zero emissions legislation this year, while some smaller countries have gone for dates before 2050, such as Finland (2035) and Norway (2030), though the latter allows the buying of carbon offsets.
While the 2050 date was recommended by the UK’s official Committee on Climate Change (CCC), May has rejected its advice on international carbon credits, whereby a country can pay for cuts elsewhere in lieu of domestic emissions. John Gummer, the CCC chair, said last month it was “essential” that such credits were not used.
Doug Parr, the chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, said the target was “a big moment for everyone in the climate movement” and a legacy May could be proud of. However, he said the “loopholes” of allowing international carbon credits would need to be unpicked and the target date moved forward.
“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,” he said. “This type of offsetting has a history of failure and is not, according to the government’s climate advisers, cost-efficient.”
May, who will mark the target on Wednesday by meeting science and engineering students, said it was “the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children”.
The plan was endorsed by the CBI’s head, Carolyn Fairbairn, who said such efforts “can drive UK competitiveness and secure long-term prosperity”.
She added: “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.”
Downing Street poured scorn last week on Hammond’s warnings, disclosed in a leaked letter, saying the supposed £1tn figure ignored both the economic benefits of action and the costs of not doing anything.
A Treasury source said Hammond fully backed the 2050 net zero target but had pushed for a full costing of the plan to make sure it did not negatively impact on other areas of public spending.
May has rushed through the legislation with one eye on her legacy after being effectively forced out of office before doing everything she wanted to in terms of domestic policy.
Downing Street sources said implementing the target before she leaves No 10 in a few weeks’ time was extremely important to May. It is understood she also reminded her colleagues in cabinet on Tuesday morning that she wanted them to make sure they did not forget about dealing with the fallout from Grenfell Tower after she leaves office.
See comment from the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) at
We’re pleased that the Government has made clear that a UK net zero target has to address all sectors, including aviation and shipping, and that it intends to include these sectors formally in future. We’re left, though, with two key concerns:
- If aviation emissions reductions are not legislated for, will the Government and the industry actually deliver any meaningful action to tackle them? Under the current approach there is no way formally to hold Government to account on this. The Government must now use the forthcoming Aviation Strategy to set out its vision for limiting aviation emissions in line with net zero; the draft strategy’s pro-growth approach is not, in our view, consistent with this.
- With no official limits on use of offsets, will the Government attempt to use the UN CORSIA scheme (which has no long-term emissions target, and addresses only emissions growth above 2020 levels), together with an aspiration for large-scale carbon removals in future, as an excuse for inaction on actual aviation emissions? Aviation is likely to make the heaviest reliance of all sectors on negative emissions. Where these will come from, how they will be paid for, and whether we can rely on them to be available at scale are now the important questions. Offsets, meanwhile, are no substitute for a meaningful climate change plan for UK aviation, which is long overdue.
The Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019
Citation and commencement
1. This Order may be cited as the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019 and comes into force on the day after the day on which it is made.
Amendment of the target for 2050
2.—(1) Section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008 is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1), for “80%” substitute “100%”.
The amendment in this Order has the effect that the minimum percentage by which the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 must be lower than the 1990 baseline is increased from 80% to 100%. .
EXPLANATORY MEMORANDUM TO THE CLIMATE CHANGE ACT 2008 (2050 TARGET AMENDMENT) ORDER 2019 2019 No. [XXXX]
Extinction Rebellion commented:
Will Theresa May leave a legacy or pass down a death sentence?
Given that it is now agreed it is not just possible but necessary to reach carbon neutrality, why are we waiting until 2050? The targets – which were set out in the CCC report – pass the burden of holding the world to 1.5C on to the shoulders of the poorest countries who did the least to cause the problem.  Every year that goes by before emissions get to zero, increases the risk of triggering catastrophic tipping points in the climate system.
Greta Thunberg says the house is on fire. The PM says we will put it out in 30 years. If Theresa May wants to have a legacy we say think bigger. We need to take action now – not next year, next decade, not by 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 2050 target is based on spending just 1-2% of GDP to decarbonise our economy over 30 years (with a nice get out clause to the legally binding target – thank you Treasury. Let’s see what the 2019 budget holds, we all know that where the money goes, is where the action happens).
That’s not an emergency response. Is that really all we are prepared to invest in protecting our futures from calamity? From the perspective of young people, it is an outrage that those who make the decisions won’t be around to experience the consequences.
Let’s not mince words, 2050 is a death sentence: people are already dying and this will only get worse with far off dates.
Were we to put our minds to it and do what is required to mobilise society to address the threat with the seriousness it deserves, the UK could embrace transformative change and decarbonise in years not decades.
We welcome that the Prime Minister is finally talking about the emergency. This is a testament to the public pressure – including the more than 1,000 people willingly arrested for this cause – that is forcing politicians to confront the existential reality of the climate and ecological emergency. But it is not nearly enough.
Friends of the Earth commented:
It’s a step in the right direction but we know we must go further and faster than this. If we’re to stand a chance of keeping global heating below 1.5°C – beyond which would mean disaster for people and the planet – we need to achieve net zero emissions by 2045 at the latest.
Net zero means no more fracking, no more airport expansion, and no new digging or drilling for oil and coal. It means doubling tree cover in the UK and building cleaner energy and transport systems.
What it shouldn’t mean is exporting our carbon footprint to the global south. As a rich nation, we need to do more, so that those most vulnerable don’t pay the price for our actions.