The UK Government has this week passed into law a duty to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 . This is nothing less than historic. By committing to net-zero emissions, it has set a legally binding target to end the UK's contribution to climate change.
No one should underestimate the impact of this decision. It makes the UK the first major economy to set such a legally binding target. It is an act of international leadership and it will encourage other governments to follow.
It follows a two year campaign involving nature, faith, health and development organisations working together with an impressive cross-party group of MPs and leading business groups.
It also comes at a time of unprecedented public support for far more ambitious action on climate change. This week over 12,000 people turned up at Parliament in the biggest mass lobby in parliamentary history, calling on MPs and ministers to make climate and environmental protection a priority.
This year has also witnessed school strikes by children and the advent of direct action protests by Extinction Rebellion supporters , leading to mass arrests. This movement is not going away. The people are fed up with the political failure to take climate change seriously and they know our very existence is at stake.
Some have questioned why the UK should make such a commitment when it is only responsible for one per cent of the world's emissions. But if no one leads, no one follows. And that would damn us to catastrophic levels of climate change. The UK also has the second highest historic levels of carbon emissions per capita in the world. It led the industrial revolution and it has a moral duty to lead the global clean energy revolution.
Before the decision was made by Theresa May to back the net-zero target, a leaked letter from the chancellor, Philip Hammond, suggested the cost of reaching the target was an eye watering £1trillion. But in the week that followed, his letter was labelled as economically illiterate by economists and business leaders. They pointed out that he had failed to recognise this was mostly private investment, he had not set out the economic returns to UK PLC from this investment and he had completely omitted to consider the colossal costs of inaction.
In fact, this investment would serve to put the UK at the forefront of the new green industrial revolution and on balance we would be far better off. And what is more, it would mean clean air, warm homes, restored natural habitats and reduced costs to the NHS.
Although the 2050 target the government has set is in line with the advice from the Committee on Climate Change, there is a strong case for bringing it forward as soon as possible. The sooner the world gets to net-zero the lower the risks for humanity. In the Paris Agreement the world signed up to limiting global heating by well under 2C compared to pre-industrial times and to try and limit that rise in temperature to 1.5C.
But we have reached 1C of heating and the impacts are already devastating, strengthening storms, forest fires, floods and droughts. Even a rise of 1.5C, the least level of heating expected, could devastate most of the worlds coral reefs and displace millions more people from their homes. Beyond 1.5C we are at a far higher risk of breaching tipping points that could unleash far more heating.
The message is that all countries, including the UK, must act like this is the emergency it is and reduce their emissions to zero as fast as it is humanly possible to do it. It requires a war-like effort by government. There is no greater threat to UK and global peace and security than climate change.
The government must also move to permanently close the loopholes in the Climate Change Act, where the net-zero commitment is enshrined. The UK government has left headroom in its carbon budgets to take into account aviation and shipping emissions. But it can ensure they are formally included easily. All it needs is secondary legislation that would take a matter of weeks to pass through Parliament.
The problem with carbon off-setting
The government has also said it agrees with the recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change that international carbon off-setting should not be used to meet the target. These schemes notoriously leak like a sieve and cannot be relied upon to deliver real emissions reductions. They can also be used by governments to cover up their failure to cut their own emissions. But to close this loophole requires primary legislation and it must be done.
The most urgent challenge is for the UK to now get on track to net-zero. The UK was already set to miss the fourt h and fifth carbon budgets before this new decarbonisation target was set. To get on the pathway to net-zero means putting climate action at the heart of the UK economic development plan.
At the heart of infrastructure
Until now, climate action has been little more than an occasional distraction for the Treasury. But this short-term, blinkered thinking is not sustainable. Climate action must now be put at the very heart of the UK's industrial, infrastructure and capital spending plans. It must be prioritised before all other projects, including HS2 and new road building.
It must become mission critical to all government departments. Only then will we know that this Government is serious about this target. Only then will we have a chance of meeting it.
The UK Government should be commended for taking this historic step to net-zero. But without strong steps to ramp up carbon cutting action across our economy, this target will mean little. The time for action is now.
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