In-depth Q&A: The UK Becomes First Major Economy to Set Net-Zero Climate Goal

The UK is to raise its ambition on climate change by setting a legally binding target to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to “net-zero” by 2050, prime minister Theresa May has announced today.

No.10 Downing Street at night, London, UK. Credit: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo.
No.10 Downing Street at night, London, UK. Credit: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo.

The 2050 net-zero goal was recommended by the government’s official adviser, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), last month. The CCC’s advice was requested following the 2015 Paris Agreement, which raised global ambition with a target to limit warming since the pre-industrial period to “well below” 2C and to make efforts to stay below 1.5C.

In a letter confirming the decision, May says: “Ending our contribution to global warming by 2050 can be the defining decision of this generation in fulfilling our responsibility to the next.” The UK would be the first member of the G7 group of major economies to legislate for net-zero. It joins others having set net-zero targets, including Sweden, New Zealand and Japan.

May’s announcement diverges from the CCC advice on some details, including the use of international “offsets”. It does not explicitly mention emissions from international aviation and shipping, but responding to questions from Carbon Brief the prime minister’s office says: “This is a whole economy target…and we intend for it to apply to international aviation and shipping.”

Draft legislation implementing the new goal must now be approved by both houses of parliament, in a process that could be finalised in a matter of days. The government says it will review the target within five years “to confirm that other countries are taking similarly ambitious action”.

Why is the UK setting a net-zero target for 2050?

The UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act includes a legally binding target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. This was set in the context of international ambition to limit warming to no more than 2C above pre-industrial temperatures.

In 2015, the Paris Agreement changed the rules of the game by raising global ambition to “well below” 2C and adding an aspirational goal of limiting warming to 1.5C. The Paris deal also commits signatories to “balance” greenhouse gas emissions and sinks “in the second half of this century” MORE

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