UK sets target for net zero emissions by 2050

Article by Amanda Doyle

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that the UK will legislate to reduce CO2 emissions to net zero by 2050.

The Climate Change Act 2008 committed the UK to reduce net emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. The new target will amend the Climate Change Act and make net reductions by 100% – the new legally-binding target.

“This country led the world in innovation during the Industrial Revolution, and now we must lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth,” said May. “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.”

The Government also announced that the Youth Steering Group, set up by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the British Youth Council, will start a review of the UK’s climate policy in July and be able to give their views to the Government and advise on action. Doug Parr, Chief Scientist for Greenpeace UK, said: “This is a big moment for everyone in the climate movement and particularly to the youth climate strikers, who rightly should advise on future climate and environmental policy.”


The announcement of the net zero by 2050 target comes despite complaints by Chancellor Phillip Hammond last week over the cost of implementing the target. No. 10 denied Hammond’s claim and said that a net zero economy would cost no more than the UK’s existing decarbonisation plans. However, the Government plans to perform a review in five years to see if other countries are also taking similar action to ensure that UK industries don’t face unfair competition, echoing a concern raised by Hammond.

The 2050 net zero target was recommended by the Committee on Climate Change, however the Government has rejected its advice not to use international carbon credits. This will allow the UK to offset domestic emissions by paying for cuts in other countries.

Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth, said: “It is disappointing that the Government has ignored its climate advisors’ recommendation to exclude carbon offsets – as well as caving into Treasury pressure to review the target in five years’ time. Fiddling the figures would put a huge dent in our ability to avoid catastrophic climate change – and the Government’s credibility for taking this issue seriously. Having declared a climate emergency, Parliament must act to close these loopholes.”

Decarbonising all sectors

While the UK has significantly reduced emissions in the power sector through the increase of renewable energy and shutting down of coal-fired plants, other sectors such as transport, heating, housing, and industry have proven much more difficult to decarbonise.

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI Director-General, welcomed the Government’s decision but emphasised that it must be followed up with long-term policies. “Some sectors will need clear pathways to enable investment in low-carbon technologies, and it is vital that there is cross-government coordination on the policies and regulation needed to deliver a clean future.”

Ken Hunnisett, Project Director and Head of Public Sector at Triple Point Investment Management, said: “Heat networks can play a huge role in the achievement of this target. One of the greatest challenges to reducing CO2 emissions is how we heat our homes as some 37% of CO2 emissions in the UK are produced from heating. District heating or heat networks are vital to achieving the goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This is thanks to their unique ability to connect a wide range of heat sources including hydrogen, electric heat pumps, green gas, waste heat and solar at point of construction. It will also be possible to plug in further low carbon heating technologies to existing heat networks as they become available. Today’s announcement will stimulate further investment across the UK toward the renewal of heat infrastructure.’’

Stephen Marcos Jones, UKPIA Director-General, called on the Government to work with industry to realise the new target. “Governments and policymakers will need to work closely with industry to ensure emissions are not simply exported elsewhere whilst domestic manufacturing is rendered uncompetitive.”

Steve Elliott, Chief Executive of the Chemical Industries Association, said that it will be important to get the balance right between medium-term solutions such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and hydrogen, and short-term solutions such as addressing UK policy costs like those that result in high power costs for business. “If we get that balance right, then the UK chemical industry and its 140,000 skilled workers across the country can help accelerate the delivery of green solutions, benefitting society and the environment”.  

Matt Rooney, Engineering Policy Adviser at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said that the new target should be seen as an opportunity for the UK to lead the development of new technologies but highlighted the importance of skills and training to meet the target. “The engineering challenges involved are daunting and as a country we need to ensure that our workers have the competencies to deliver net zero. With the pace of change we need to remember that our education system will need to evolve to train – and retrain – engineers so that they can thrive in this new world. There is little doubt that in the same way the Apollo missions to the moon led to a spike in the number of engineers and scientists, a nationwide, government-endorsed net zero greenhouse gas programme will lead to the recruitment of more (and more diverse) entrants to the sector.”

The Welsh Government has also announced that it intends to meet the net zero by 2050 target, even though the CCC only recommended 95% reductions for Wales as its large agricultural sector will be difficult to decarbonise.

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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