Extinction Rebellion protesters outside Parliament

Eliminate net carbon emissions by 2050, government advised

Image credit: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

The independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has announced that the UK can put an end to its contribution to climate change within 30 years with reasonable economic cost and using existing technology.

In 2008, Parliament approved the Climate Change Act, which gave the government the duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050. The act also created the CCC to advise the government on this target.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the UK and almost every other UN member state agreed to take action to cut carbon emissions in order to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. Global average temperatures have already risen 1°C from pre-industrial levels, with disturbing changes in our climate such as frequent heatwaves and heat damage to coral reefs. While efforts to reduce emissions over the past decade have reduced the forecast of global warming from above 4°C by 2100 to around 3°C, the Paris Agreement aims to keep rises below 2°C and, ideally, below 1.5°C.

More than a decade after the UK Climate Change Act became law, the CCC has advised that the government aims to entirely eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, putting an end to the UK’s contributions to climate change. Any remaining carbon emissions, such as those from aviation, must be offset through carbon-capture methods such as planting trees.

According to the CCC, Scotland is in an excellent position to remove carbon emissions from its economy, and could adopt a new target of reaching net zero emissions by 2045. Wales, however, has slightly worse opportunities than the rest of the UK and is advised to adopt a target for 95 per cent reduction by 2050.

The CCC’s targets are achievable with known technologies, acceptable economic cost, and some changes in lifestyle. They are based on changes to every part of the economy, including quadrupling the supply of low-carbon electricity by 2050, efficient buildings and low-carbon heating, electric vehicles (which should be the only option from 2035 at the latest), carbon capture and storage, low-carbon hydrogen, stopping biodegradable waste going to landfill, phasing out fluorinated gases, increasing tree planting, and reducing agricultural emissions.

The report suggests trebling woodland creation from 10,000 hectares a year to 30,000 hectares a year by 2050, as well as cutting beef, lamb and dairy consumption by 20 per cent.

The falling cost of technologies such as offshore wind and battery storage mean that achieving net zero emissions is now possible within the original economic cost that Parliament accepted in 2008, at an annual cost of up to 1-2 per cent of GDP to 2050. Meanwhile, some costs to consumers, such as increased heating bills, will be offset by savings in other areas, such as with the rollout of electric vehicles and cheaper electricity bills.

“However, these policies must be urgently strengthened and must deliver tangible emissions reductions – current policy is not enough even for existing targets [...] Government must set the direction and provide the urgency. The public will need to be engaged if the transition is to succeed,” the CCC wrote.

The CCC has called for the government to put the targets into law as soon as possible.

The report explained that, aside from avoiding the most devastating impacts of climate change on a global scale, there were many benefits to be enjoyed from shifting towards a zero-carbon economy such as better air quality, less noise pollution, an industrial boost from low-carbon products and services, healthier diets, and more leisurely benefits from changes to land use.

“We can all see that the climate is changing and it needs a serious response,” said Lord Deben, chair of the CCC. “The great news is that it is not only possible for the UK to play its full part – we explain how in our new report – but it can be done within the cost envelope that Parliament has already accepted. The government should accept the recommendations and set about making the changes needed to deliver them without delay.”

“One of our proudest achievements as a country is our position as a world-leader in tackling this global challenge, being the first country to raise the issue on the international stage, introduce long-term legally binding climate reduction targets and cutting emissions further than all other G20,” said Business Secretary Greg Clark. The government has said that it will respond “urgently” to the report.

Environmental groups have generally welcomed the report, although some have called for much more urgent action to reduce carbon emissions. Clara Goldsmith, a partner of the Climate Coalition, said: “We call on the government to set in legislation a world-leading target for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 and put in place the ambitious policies and investment to back it up. This would put the UK in pole position to lead the global zero-carbon revolution.”

However, Extinction Rebellion – a group which has been very visibly campaigning for the government to declare a ‘climate emergency’ and introduce measures to cut net greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2030 with the urgency of a wartime effort – criticised the CCC for its recommendations.

“The advice of [the CCC] to the UK government is a betrayal of current & future generations made all the more shocking coming just hours after UK MPs passed a motion to declare an environment & climate emergency,” the group posted on Twitter.

Yesterday, MPs voted to approve a motion to declare a climate emergency, following in the footsteps of Wales, Scotland, the Mayor of London, and approximately 100 local authorities. While the move was similarly welcomed by the environmental lobby, they warned that this was meaningless without accompanying action. Swedish environmental activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg said that this was “historic and very hopeful news” but “words must turn into immediate action”.

The vote was passed just hours after High Court judges struck down a legal challenge against the expansion of Heathrow Airport, brought by the Mayor of London, local authorities, and environmental charities.

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