Public demand for climate change action remains high, and the next Parliament will see continued cross-party attention on it. In 2019, following Parliament’s declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ and recommendations from the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the Government legislated for net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Here we look at what is likely to lead the debate in the new Parliament, including policies for reducing emissions in key sectors like transport, energy, housing and agriculture.


What is net zero?

Net zero is a statutory target set by the Climate Change Act 2008 for at least a 100% reduction of UK greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels). It replaced the UK’s previous target to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. It is known as a net zero target because some emissions can remain if they are offset (i.e. by removal from the atmosphere and/or by trading in carbon units). If met, this target would effectively mean the UK would end its contribution to global emissions by 2050.

Chart 1 shows the UK’s existing five-yearly carbon budgets which set shorter-term targets in line with the longer-term target. The CCC is expected to publish advice in September 2020 on the sixth carbon budget (for 2033-37), which will consider the net zero target. HM Treasury announced a Net Zero Review in November 2019. The review will look at how to reach net zero while both maximising economic growth and ensuring a fair transition, including reducing costs for low-income households.

How will the UK achieve net zero?

The CCC’s May 2019 report, which recommended net zero, recognised that the foundations were already in place but called for a set of “clear, stable and well-designed policies” to be introduced “without delay.” The new Parliament is likely to consider a range of these policies in detail. It is impossible to predict the exact combination that will achieve net zero, but below are some high-profile issues for major sectors.

Transport

The Conservative Government’s ‘Road to Zero’ Strategy set out long-term measures to decarbonise road transport, but there are calls to be more ambitious. The new Parliament may explore policies on moving to 100% electric vehicles with supporting charging infrastructure in shorter timeframes, and encouraging more walking, cycling and public transport. It may also explore lower carbon options for aeroplanes and ships.

Energy supply

Large falls in energy supply emissions have driven around half of the reduction in UK emissions since 1990. Coal power station closures have contributed to this, as has government-supported development of renewables. Further effort is needed, with the previous Government promising an Energy White Paper for 2020.

Domestic

The CCC’s Report on UK Housing concluded that decarbonising and adapting the UK’s housing stock was “critical” for meeting net zero. The Committee has highlighted that policies and standards to drive high-quality, low-carbon new and retrofitted homes are necessary to meet net zero. Suggested measures include tightening building standards, introducing minimum standards for social housing, improving low-carbon heating and energy efficiency, and consumer incentives like green mortgages.

Agriculture and land use

Methane is a key contributor to agricultural emissions with livestock producing about half of all UK farm emissions. Farmers can voluntarily improve practices under a Greenhouse Gas Action Plan. Financial incentives could support farmers to act further. The Agriculture Bill 2017-19 included measures to pay farmers for taking steps like reducing emissions or sequestering carbon. Suggested natural solutions include increasing forest cover in the UK and restoring peatland. Changing consumer attitudes on diets could allow changes in how UK farmland is used.

Waste management

Decomposition of biodegradable waste in landfill contributes to a large proportion of total waste emissions (almost 70% in 2017). The Conservative Government’s Resources and Waste Strategy for England set out an ambition to divert food waste from landfill, increase recycling and move to a circular economy where materials are valued and reused. Many of these policies will require further legislation.

Industrial processes

Eight industrial sectors (including cement, food and drink, and iron and steel) account for around two-thirds of industrial carbon emissions. Net zero will challenge industries to reduce emissions without reducing their competitiveness. Potential mechanisms include energy and resource efficiency, electrification, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage. The previous Government aimed to create a net zero carbon industrial cluster by 2040, supported by the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. It also announced the Industrial Energy Transformation Fund to be launched in Spring 2020.

Removing emissions

Both planting trees and technology such as carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) are seen as crucial for meeting net zero. Currently there are no CCUS projects in the UK. The previous Government published its CCUS Deployment Pathway in 2018, designed to enable the development of CCUS, commissioning from the mid-2020s.

Further reading

Insights for the new Parliament

This article is part of our series of Insights for the new Parliament. This series covers a range of topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.