‘Standing by is not an option’: Landmark moment as UK confirms intent to legislate for net zero
Image: 10 Downing Street.

The UK government will legislate for a net zero economy by 2050 Prime Minister Theresa May has confirmed, in one of her last acts in office.

Yesterday evening the PM revealed that a statutory instrument will be laid in parliament today (12 June 2019), amending Climate Change Act of 2008 to establish the new target.

The SI will require parliamentary approval but, if it succeeds, the UK would essentially become among the first global major economies to legislate for net zero emissions with other economies set to follow suit in the coming months.

However the government has moved to confirm that a review will be conducted within five years of the target being set to confirm that other nations are taking similarly ambitious actions in a bid to ensure UK industries do not face “unfair competition”.

“As the first country to legislate for long-term climate targets, we can be truly proud of our record in tackling climate change. We have made huge progress in growing our economy and the jobs market while slashing emissions.

“Now is the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children. 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,” the Prime Minister said.

Having recommended the government to legislate for such a target – with the crucial requirement that the target is taken seriously and met with sufficient policy action – Lord Deben, chairman at the Committee on Climate Change, said the committee was delighted the government had agreed to put the target to a parliamentary vote.

“Our report concluded that Net Zero is necessary, feasible and cost effective. This is a major commitment for the coming decades, but we have highlighted the significant benefits of action. This step will send a strong signal to other countries to follow suit – and will help to drive the global effort to tackle climate change required by the Paris Agreement.”

However Lord Deben was again quick to stress the CCC’s view that legislating for a net zero target was “just a first step”.

“The target must now be reinforced by credible UK policies, across government, inspiring a strong response from business, industry and society as a whole. The government has not yet moved formally to include international aviation and shipping within the target, but they have acknowledged that these sectors must be part of the whole economy strategy for net zero. We will assist by providing further analysis of how emissions reductions can be delivered in these sectors through domestic and international frameworks,” he said.

The CCC’s next step is to now build its statutory advice to government for the sixth carbon budget, legislating for the period 2032 – 2037, due to be published next year.

The energy sector meanwhile welcomed the news, with Energy UK chief executive Lawrence Slade lauding the “exciting development”.

“The power sector has led the way in helping reduce the UK’s carbon emissions. Half of our electricity generation now comes from low carbon sources and the recent coal-free fortnight is testimony to a rate of progress, at a lower cost, than anyone could have foreseen a few years ago.

“Net-zero can be achieved but only if the ambition is supported by the right policies. As our recent Future of Energy report highlighted, we need to go further and faster in areas like decarbonising transport and heating and improving the energy efficiency of our homes and businesses. This can only happen with consistent and bold policy-making from across all government departments to support the target and we look forward to working with the Government to achieve our shared ambition.”

The news was always cautiously welcomed by environmental groups who, much like the CCC, stressed the need for government to now put its money – and legislative efforts – where its mouth is, making references to recent news that the government is to examine the use of flexibilities to meet future emissions reduction targets.

“This is a big moment for everyone in the climate movement and particularly to the youth climate strikers, who rightly should advise on future climate and environmental policy.

“Judging by the headline, this is a legacy Theresa May can be proud of. Judging by the small print, this is a net zero target with a backstop. 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. This type of offsetting has a history of failure and is not, according the government’s climate advisors, cost efficient.

“While the loopholes being woven into the legislation by the Treasury will need to be unpicked, and the date moved forward, this decision fires the starting gun for a fundamental transformation of our economy. The government must immediately upgrade our electricity, construction, heating, agriculture and transport systems,” Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said.

His sentiments were echoed by Friends of the Earth chief executive Craig Bennett, who said: “In the dying days of a premiership characterised by chronic inaction on climate breakdown, this sends a powerful message to industry and investors that the age of fossil fuels is over.

“But it is disappointing that the government has ignored its climate advisors recommendation to exclude carbon offsets – as well as caving into Treasury pressure to review the target in five years’ time.

“Fiddling the figures would put a huge dent in our ability to avoid catastrophic climate change – and the government’s credibility for taking this issue seriously. Having declared a climate emergency, parliament must act to close these loopholes.”