Theresa May puts down legislation for the UK to cut its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, making Britain the first major economy in the world to do so.
In what is widely seen as a move to cement her legacy after the disaster of Brexit, the prime minister has committed the UK to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The ambitious target was laid down in parliament on Wednesday through an amendment to the Climate Change Act. The amendment is being added as a statutory instrument and in Westminster speak this means it does not require a vote by MPs to become law.
The Act was agreed by MPs in 2008 and already committed the UK to reduce emissions by 80% and will now be amended to reach the much tougher goal.
In practice, this means emissions from homes, farming, industry, and transport will have to be avoided or where this is not possible offset by planting trees or removing CO2 out of the atmosphere in other ways, such as carbon capture and storage schemes. Under the plans, carbon dioxide captured from industries that still use fossil fuels such as oil refineries would be stored underground in depleted oil and gas wells.
Some commentators say the task is impossible, while environmental groups such as Greenpeace have welcomed the move but was cautious about the lack of detail from the government about how the target will be met.
The UK’s official Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said that if other countries follow the UK’s lead, there is a 50-50 chance that the world will be able to stay below the minimum recommended temperature rise of 1.5C by 2100.
Last week the chancellor Phillip Hammond warned that trying to achieve the net zero target would cost the UK £1tn and mean spending on public services would have to be cut to finance it.
However, Number 10 dismissed these claims saying that the Treasury’s concerns ignored the cost of not doing anything to reduce CO2 emissions and the economic benefits of investment in cleaner, greener technologies.
UK Must Lead the World
Theresa May the Prime Minister said in a statement while meeting science and engineering students that the UK must lead the world on the climate change.
“This country led the world in innovation during the Industrial Revolution, and now we must lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth. Standing by is not an option. 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,” she said.
The government also rejected the option of making use of so-called international carbon credits to help reach net zero by 2050, whereby a country can pay for cuts elsewhere in lieu of its own carbon emissions. May said this kind of offsetting has a history of failure and was rejected by the CCC as not being cost efficient.
Number 10 has said there will be a review in five years to make sure that other countries were also taking ambitious action so that British industry was not facing unfair competition.
France has also proposed bringing in net zero emissions legislation later this year and some countries with much smaller populations have already set dates to reach net zero well before 2050, such as Finland in 2035 and Norway in 2030.
But the reality of achieving this is a very different question. Britain is already way off target from meeting its mid-term carbon emissions set for the previous 80% cut by 2050.
“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,” Professor Phil Taylor, head of engineering at Newcastle University, told the BBC.
It is also a possibility that the legislation could be overturned or changed by future governments, although on the climate change issue, MPs at the moment are in agreement and the majority of the future Tory leadership candidates are also backing it.