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?
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). 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.
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:
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."
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, but in 2019 concluded that the time is now right as the required evidence is “available” and “robust.”
The Climate Change Act 2008 allows for the target to be amended. Section 1 of the Act sets out the existing target:
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
(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,
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.
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. 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.
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. 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”, 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”. 
 Gov.uk, UK climate targets: request for advice from the Committee on Climate Change, 15 October 2018
 Committee on Climate Change, Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming, 2 May 2019
 HC Deb, Business of the House, Department of Energy and Climate Change, 16 October 2008, C939
 Welsh Government, Wales accepts Committee on Climate Change 95% emissions reduction target, 11 June 2019
 Jim Pickard, UK net zero emissions target will ‘cost more than £1trn’, Financial Times, 5 June 2019
 Seth Jacobson and Jillian Ambrose, No 10 denies claim but chancellor that emissions target will cost £1tn, The Guardian, 6 June 2019
 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