U.K. government announces 2050 carbon neutrality ambition

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It is fast becoming a British tradition for prime ministers to wave goodbye by leaving insurmountable problems in the in-tray for their successors. Theresa May, handed Brexit by David Cameron, today announced a net-zero carbon ambition in the House of Commons.

May, of course, is on her farewell tour after repeatedly failing to gain a parliamentary majority for the Brexit deal she negotiated with the EU.

The prime minister said her administration will react to a report commissioned by the government and produced by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). As a result of the report’s findings, the prime minister will table a statutory instrument to change the 2008 Climate Change Act. That legislation requires the U.K. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, using 1990 emissions as a baseline. A CCC report produced at the time highlighted the benefits of such a move to public health and savings for the National Health Service from better air quality as well as mentioning reduced noise pollution and increased biodiversity.

What was good enough in 2008, however, does not stand up to CCC scrutiny any longer. The committee has now suggested bolder action and says a net-zero carbon scenario by 2050 can be achieved for the same cost as the previous ambition. The committee called for electric vehicle targets to be brought forward to 2035, for clean energy generation to be quadrupled by 2050 and for Scotland to reach net-zero emissions by 2045. The CCC also gave advice on improving biodiversity and the use of carbon capture technology.

Business backs the move

The new legislation will make the U.K. the first G7 nation to legislate a for net zero emissions, said the government this morning. May said: “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.”

Secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, Greg Clark, said the report makes clear the feasibility as well as the necessity of the ambition. In employment terms, he said, there are 400,000 jobs in the low carbon sector and he is hoping to raise that figure to two million by 2030. Low carbon technologies and clean energy contribute £44.5 billion to the British economy every year, according to the minister.

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of business lobby group the CBI, said: “U.K. business stands squarely behind the government’s commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. This legislation is the right response to the global climate crisis and firms are ready to play their part in combating it.”

The outgoing PM’s apparent embrace of climate change legislation contrasts with her government’s recent policies, particularly regrading residential solar in the U.K.

The Solar Trade Association’s (STA) Jack Dobson-Smith said: “The domestic market is in a more fragile situation, with planned increases to VAT for solar and battery storage installations – where the cost of materials lies above 60% of the total installation cost – and no legal guarantees of remuneration for small scale solar power exports to the grid till the end of the year. That’s a shame when, more than ever, the public needs to feel empowered to act.”

He added, the solar industry would assume a vital role in decarbonization of the U.K. power sector. The STA expects 4-7 GW of new PV generation capacity will be installed over the next four years. “Strategic leadership on solar is coming more and more from local government, regional mayors and the Welsh and the Scottish governments,” said Dobson-Smith.

Rising public anger

The STA spokesperson said the biggest task for the government to undertake to realize its net-zero ambition would be creating the “right markets and regulatory frameworks for clean energy to thrive and merge with the heating and transport sectors”.

Against a backdrop of rising public protests by groups including the Fridays for Future school strikers and direct action group Extinction Rebellion, the U.K. government appears willing to give the younger generation a bigger say on the issue.

“For the first time young people will have the chance to shape our future climate policy through the Youth Steering Group,” said a statement by the prime minister’s office today. “The group, set up by DCMS [the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] and led by the British Youth Council, will advise government on priorities for environmental action and give a view on progress to date against existing commitments on climate, waste and recycling and biodiversity loss. [It] will start [its] review in July.”

California, the world’s fifth largest economy, has pledged net zero emissions by 2045 and France is working on a law to render its economy carbon neutral by 2050. Other European countries are drafting similar measures in the wake of significant Green Party gains in the recent EU elections.

The new Finnish government recently pledged to go carbon neutral as early as 2035. The EU is likely to realize a 2050 carbon neutrality target but Finland holds its rotating presidency from July 1 and could push for a more ambitious aim.