House of Commons Library

Legislating for net zero

Published Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Government has laid secondary legislation to introduce a target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

On 12 June 2019 the Government laid secondary legislation to introduce a target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In simple terms, ‘net zero’ means total emissions are equal to or less than the emissions removed from the environment. If met, this target would effectively mean that the UK will end its contribution to global emissions in 2050.

This legislation follows a recommendation from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the statutory body set up to monitor and advise on progress towards the UK’s emission targets. Currently the UK has a long-term emissions reduction target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels, set by the Climate Change Act 2008. More information on existing decarbonisation targets is available in the Library briefing paper on UK Carbon Budgets. Background on net zero is available in our October 2018 insight Net zero emissions: A new UK climate change target?

The new legislation was announced by a Downing Street Press release, and has been welcomed by the CCC.

CCC recommendation

On 15 October 2018, the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth Claire Perry MP wrote to the CCC to ask for updated advice on a date by which the UK should achieve a net zero greenhouse gas emissions target (including whether now is the right time for the UK to set such a target).[1] This followed a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which found that limiting global warming to 1.5°C is possible but would require unprecedented “rapid and far reaching” changes in all aspects of society, including a need to reach ‘net zero’ by around 2050.[2]

On 2 May 2019, the CCC published their net-zero report, recommending the UK set a target of net-zero emissions by 2050. The executive summary states:

    "The UK should set and vigorously pursue an ambitious target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) to 'net-zero' by 2050, ending the UK's contribution to global warming within 30 years.
    Reflecting their respective circumstances, Scotland should set a net-zero GHG target for 2045 and Wales should target a 95% reduction by 2050 relative to 1990
    A net-zero GHG target for 2050 will deliver on the commitment that the UK made by signing the Paris Agreement. It is achievable with known technologies, alongside improvements in people's lives, and within the expected economic cost that Parliament accepted when it legislated the existing 2050 target for an 80% reduction from 1990.
    However, this is only possible if clear, stable and well-designed policies to reduce emissions further are introduced across the economy without delay. Current policy is insufficient for even the existing targets.

A net-zero GHG target for 2050 would respond to the latest climate science and fully meet the UK's obligations under the Paris Agreement."[3]

The CCC recommended that the target should include emissions from international aviation and shipping, and that international carbon credits (whereby a country can pay for emission cuts elsewhere in lieu of domestic emissions) should not be used to contribute to meeting it. The Government press release said they would allow for carbon credits to be used in meeting the target, against this CCC advice.

The CCC had said three years previously, in October 2016, that it was then too early to set a UK net zero target[4], but in 2019 concluded that the time is now right as the required evidence is “available” and “robust.”

Legislative changes

The Climate Change Act 2008 allows for the target to be amended. Section 1 of the Act sets out the existing target:

  1. It is the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline.

Section 2 gives the Secretary of State the power to amend the target (either by amending the percentage, or the baseline year) “by order” (i.e. through secondary legislation). To amend the percentage set out in Section 1, the Act puts in place conditions

  1. The power in subsection (1)(a) may only be exercised—

(a) if it appears to the Secretary of State that there have been significant developments in—

(i) scientific knowledge about climate change, or

(ii) European or international law or policy,

  • that make it appropriate to do so

Section 2(6) states that an order to amend the target will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, meaning it must be approved by both Houses of Parliament.

This power has not been used before; when the target was previously increased from 60% to 80% in 2008 under then Labour Government, the Climate Change Act was still progressing through Parliament.[5]

The Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019 amends Section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008 to change the target from 80% to 100% (net-zero).

The Order applies to the whole of the UK. Across the UK, the CCC did recommend an earlier target for Scotland (net zero by 2045) and a slightly reduced target for Wales (95% emissions reduction by 2050) to reflect their different capacity for decarbonisation. No target was recommended for Northern Ireland due to the absence of an executive. In addition to the Climate Change Act 2008, Wales and Scotland have their own legislation on decarbonisation targets. Shortly after the CCC published their report, the Scottish Government amended their Climate Change Bill (which amends the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 and is currently progressing through the Scottish Parliament) to include the new target.[6] The Welsh Government has said that it accepts the CCC’s recommendation, but want to go further so in 2020 will bring regulations before the Assembly on a net-zero by 2050 target.[7]

Commentary on net-zero

While the net-zero target recommendation has widespread support, some argue it should be stronger, and others have cautioned that the costs of meeting the target are high. For example, the environmental charity WWF and the campaign group Extinction Rebellion have both suggested that the net zero target could be met earlier; by 2045 and 2025 respectively.

On the other hand, the Financial Times reported that the Chancellor Philip Hammond has warned Theresa May against the new target, highlighting concerns about the potential costs of achieving net-zero.[8] The CCC estimated the cost of meeting the net-zero target as 1-2% of GDP, the same as the previously predicted cost of the current 80% target due to rapid cost reductions in key technologies such as offshore wind. However the FT report suggests the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy thinks the costs may be higher.

In response, further reports suggested Downing Street has adopted the CCC view that costs would be within “existing spending plans”,[9] while there has also been industry comment on issues such as taking into account the falling cost of technology, and the need for costs to be fairly distributed as part of a “just transition”. [10]

 

[1]     Gov.uk, UK climate targets: request for advice from the Committee on Climate Change, 15 October 2018

[2]     IPCC, Summary for policymakers of IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5˚C approved by governments, 8 October 2018

[3]     Committee on Climate Change, Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming, 2 May 2019

[4]     Committee on Climate Change, UK climate action following the Paris Agreement, October 2016

[5]     HC Deb, Business of the House, Department of Energy and Climate Change, 16 October 2008, C939

[6]     Scottish Government, Climate Change action, 2 May 2019

[7]     Welsh Government, Wales accepts Committee on Climate Change 95% emissions reduction target, 11 June 2019

[8]     Jim Pickard, UK net zero emissions target will ‘cost more than £1trn’, Financial Times, 5 June 2019

[9]     Seth Jacobson and Jillian Ambrose, No 10 denies claim but chancellor that emissions target will cost £1tn, The Guardian, 6 June 2019

[10]    James Murray, Reports: Theresa May preps net zero target, despite Treasury cost concerns, (subscription only – access available through intranet) Business Green, 6 June 2019

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8590

Authors: Suzanna Hinson; Louise Smith; Sara Priestley

Topic: Climate change

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