Attention is mounting on the possibility of a ‘net zero emissions’ target in the UK. In early October, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made headlines after it 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.

Energy Minister Claire Perry wrote to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) on 15 October, 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 Insight looks at what net zero is and how it fits in with the UK’s climate change targets.

What is ‘net zero’?

In simple terms, ‘net zero’ means our total emissions are equal to or less than the emissions we remove from the environment. This can be achieved by a combination of emission reduction and removal by offsetting. Emissions can be removed or absorbed by natural processes such as tree planting or by using technologies like carbon capture.

Commitments so far…

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. To date, the UK Government has followed CCC advice from October 2016: that it was too early to set a UK net zero target but to keep it under review.

In line with its international obligations under the Paris Agreement, the Government’s 2017 Clean Growth Strategy confirmed the UK was committed to working with other countries to achieve global net zero emissions in the second half of this century and that there would be a need to legislate at “an appropriate point in the future” to provide legal certainty.

Opposition parties are broadly in favour of an earlier net zero target and more than 141 cross-party UK MPs have signed a letter calling on the Government to set a before-2050 net zero target in law within the lifetime of this Parliament. An announcement at the Labour Party conference 2018 stated a Labour government would back a net zero emissions by 2050 target, while the Liberal Democrats would legislate for net zero by 2050.

The SNP agree that a net zero target for 2050 or sooner is “the right goal” but that statutory targets must be credible and responsible.  A new Climate Change Bill was introduced in Scotland in May 2018 which set a 90% reduction target for 2050 (in line with advice from the CCC) and the Scottish Government has committed to making provisions for a net zero target when the evidence becomes available. The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 places a duty on Welsh Ministers to ensure that net emissions are 80% lower than the baseline by 2050. The Scottish and Welsh Cabinet Secretaries co-signed the letter to the CCC requesting updated advice on long-term emissions targets.

There have also been calls for earlier targets: the Green Party policy on climate change calls for net zero by 2030.

What’s the Paris Agreement and how does it relate it to net zero?

The key aim of the Paris Agreement is to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. The Agreement also included a widely-acknowledged net zero global greenhouse gas emissions aim for the second half of this century. To date, 181 nations have ratified the Paris Agreement, (including the UK) while President Trump made headlines in 2017 by withdrawing US participation.

The Paris Agreement will apply from 2020, but the detailed rulebook and technical details on how the aims will be achieved are still being negotiated. Reaching agreement on the Paris “rulebook” is a major aim for CoP24 in Katowice, Poland in December this year.

What’s the IPCC Special Report?

The IPCC Special Report will be a key scientific input for parties at CoP24. The IPCC is the leading world body for assessing the science related to climate change. Its report (see the summary for policy makers for a quick read) put forward several findings, including that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and to reach ‘net zero’ by around 2050.

When will we see a net zero decision in the UK?

The Government’s asked the CCC to provide its advice by the end of March 2019. CCC Chairman, Lord Deben, said the Committee would be consulting widely and “expect to deliver our advice within six months” which might take it to April 2019. Expect then to see a decision from the Government anytime from late spring 2019.

Further reading

Brexit: energy and climate change, House of Commons Library.

UK Fifth Carbon Budget, House of Commons Library.

Sara Priestley is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in environment and climate change.