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13 June 2019 5 min read

Net Zero 2050 - What the tough climate targets mean for the UK

Edmund Phillips

Edmund Phillips

Yesterday the Prime Minister announced that the Government will amend the Climate Change Act 2008 to require British territorial emissions to be zero on a net basis (i.e., after accounting for measures to permanently remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) by 2050. This replaces the previous target of reducing emissions by 80% relative to 1990 levels by 2050. Net zero by 2050 would deliver the UK’s commitment to The Paris Agreement, and puts the country on a pathway that, if replicated globally, is compatible with limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures.

We already knew in general terms what achieving an 80% target meant: substantially decarbonising all the major emitting sectors: power, industry, buildings (largely heating) and transport. However, the 80% target left some “wriggle room” to continue emitting in the hardest-to-decarbonise parts of these sectors; with net-zero that wriggle room goes. Already planned-for changes must be pushed further and faster:

  • Even more low-carbon electricity generation and electrification of heating and transport;
  • Earlier phase-out of petrol and diesel in light vehicles;
  • Further improvements in efficiency in the building stock and in industry.

Furthermore, measures which previously seemed optional or ambitious will become essential to squeeze out the hardest to reach emissions:

  • Development of a substantial hydrogen industry: essential to displace fossil fuels in industry, heavy vehicles, and shipping
  • Deployment of Carbon Capture and Storage: though it was difficult to deliver existing targets without CCS, net-zero makes deploying this technology at substantial scale essential
  • Changes in land use: a substantial programme of reforestation
  • Societal choices: changed diets, and reduced consumption of other carbon-intensive activities such as long-haul flights

The impact on businesses over the coming years could be substantial. To put the country on a pathway compatible with net zero, Government will need to put in place policies that enable these changes by the mid-2020s. Thereafter, business will need to be begin planning the supply chains, investments and commercial models that deliver it.

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