Net Zero

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An October 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shows that we need to reach global net zero emissions by 2050 to stand a chance of meeting the 1.5ºC target, and a better than even chance of staying ‘well below 2ºC’ as set out in the Paris Agreement.

In June 2019, the UK brought into law a commitment to reach net zero by 2050. This was in response to a report by the Committee on Climate Change.

What is Net Zero?

Net zero refers to balancing the total emissions produced with the total emissions sequestered or offset, so that overall zero emissions are released.

It will be hard to bring emissions completely to zero so a small amount of ‘negative emissions’ – drawing carbon dioxide from the air, e.g. by planting more trees – will be needed to balance those emissions that remain. Hence the aim is ‘net zero’ emissions.


Why adopt a net zero target?

The previous national emissions target for the UK was set out in the Climate Change Act (2008). This was the world’s first legally binding climate change target and put the UK at the forefront of climate policy. The current emission target is an:

80% emission reduction against 1990 levels by 2050.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) created five carbon budgetsto ensure that we stay on track in meeting this overall target. The first carbon budget was met and the UK outperformed on the second budget, which was a 31% emission reduction by 2017. The UK is also set to outperform on the third carbon budget. However, the UK is not on track to meet the fourth (51% by 2025) and fifth (57% by 2030) carbon budgets. This suggests that much stronger targets are required.

The Paris Agreement (2015) set out a collaborative goal to keep the global average temperature increase to well below 2ºC and limit warming to 1.5ºC.


As they stand, the plans as outlined in the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy are not sufficient to achieve the fourth and fifth carbon budgets (2023-2032). However, the strategy does state that the UK will need to legislate for a net zero emissions target at some point in the future.


Other nations, such as Norway and Sweden have already set net-zero targets in line with the Paris Accord. France, Germany, Finland, Iceland, Netherland, Norway, Portugal and Sweden are among the countries that signed up to the “Carbon Neutrality Coalition” at the ‘Macron summit’ on climate change in December. You can read the declaration of the Coalition here


report from Bright Blue found:

·     63% of UK adults believe that the UK should be a global leader in tackling climate change.

·     The vision of a net zero economy is strongly supported by the UK public, including by both younger and Conservative voters.

Progress to date

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After the UK signed the Paris Agreement in 2016, then Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom said: 

we will need to take the step of enshrining the Paris goal for net zero emissions in UK law. The question is not whether but how we do it.”

In April 2018, Claire Perry MP, the Minister for Clean Growth and Energy announced at the Commonwealth Summit that the government will call on the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to lay out a route for tighter carbon controls.  Tighter carbon controls would mean a zero emission target by 2050.

CCC Net Zero Report

Following the IPCC’s report in October 2018, the UK Government officially asked the CCC to provide advice on when and how the UK should reach net zero emissions. The CCC’s response came in May 2019 with a 277-page report.

The report says that the UK should aim to reach net zero by 2050. The target for Scotland was set at 2045, given it has more capacity to remove emissions through afforestation and restoring peat. Wales, meanwhile, has been set a slightly less ambitious target of reducing emissions by 95% on 1990 levels by 2050 given its large agriculture industry. The report says that the cost to the economy would be minimal, equivalent to about 1-2% of GDP per year.

Net Zero Target

In response to the report, the UK Government accepted the main recommendation of setting a 2050 net zero target. Similarly, the Scottish and Welsh Governments have also accepted the report’s recommendations. This makes the UK one of the first countries in the world to set a net zero target.

While this is an incredibly positive step from the government, it is important that they take the action needed to achieve this target in practice.

Date of Publication: 12/06/2019