UK Net Zero Target

The UK Government legislated for a net zero emissions target in December 2019. If met it will effectively mean that the UK will end its contribution to global emissions by 2050. Before this amendment, the UK had a long-term emissions reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions of 80% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels, set by the Climate Change Act 2008.

At the same time the Government also announced a HM Treasury Net Zero Review, examining how to ensure a fair balance of contributions from all those who will benefit from emissions reductions and including considering how to reduce costs for low income households. The Review is also considering how to avoid exporting rather than reducing UK emissions. The report is expected in Autumn 2020. In addition, the Climate Change Committee will be publishing its advice to Government on the UK’s sixth carbon budget and the path to net zero in December 2020.  

Climate Assembly UK

Within the context of the new net zero target, the Climate Assembly UK was jointly commissioned by six Parliamentary Select Committees in 2019, during the previous Parliament.[1] Given the task of answering the question of “how should the UK meet its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050?”, the Assembly started work in January 2020 and published its final report in September 2020. This would have been in advance of the UK hosting the COP26 climate conference, which has now been postponed until November 2021.

The Assembly was composed of 108 individuals, selected from 30,000 initially approached. The aim was to assembly a group representative of the UK 16 plus population in terms of gender, age, educational qualification, ethnicity, where they lived and the level of concern about climate change. The Assembly members met in person and virtually over 6 weekends where they had presentations from a range of experts and discussed the issues.

A statement from the Assembly on the publication of its report set its aim of strengthening and supporting parliamentary democracy on the path to net zero:

The work of Climate Assembly UK is designed to strengthen and support the UK’s parliamentary democracy by ensuring politicians and policy makers have the best possible evidence available to them about public preferences on reaching the net zero target.

In addition, the Assembly report also highlighted five themes that recurred throughout their discussions:

  • a need for information and education for everyone about climate change and the steps needed to tackle it;
  • an acknowledgement that the solutions to climate change are neither easy nor free, but they need to be fair;
  • the importance that, wherever possible, there is freedom and choice for both individuals and local areas so that they can choose the solutions that work best for them (but not at the expense of taking the necessary steps);
  • the potential co-benefits that tackling climate change could bring with it, and that the UK should take advantage of these potential rewards;
  • the need to protect and restore the natural environment, and access to it; together with strong support for climate measures with a positive impact on biodiversity and wildlife.

Climate Assembly report: The path to net zero.

The 556-page report, The Path to Net Zero, and summary set out key recommendations from the Assembly together with its view on what the future should look like and how change should happen. The Climate Assembly considered a range of topics:

  • Underpinning principles for the path to net zero
  • Travel by land and air
  • Heat and energy use in the home and where our electricity comes from
  • What we buy, what we eat and how we use the land
  • Greenhouse gas removals
  • The changed context created by Covid-19 and other additional recommendations

A wide range of specific policies where examined by Assembly. There was strong agreement on a number of these. There was significant support shown for policies such as a ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars by 2030–2035; increased taxation for frequent flyers and longer distances flown; for energy support for smarter energy products, VAT exemptions and a ban on sales of new gas boilers from 2030 or 2035. There was support for incentivising low carbon food production and encouraging farmers to use land to absorb carbon, and for changing planning rules to allow food production on a variety of land.

The Assembly strongly supported use of low carbon products together with carbon labelling; and there was support for a bans or restrictions on advertising for high emissions sectors and products. The Assembly was also strongly supportive of wind (offshore and onshore) and solar power but less supportive of bioenergy, nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage.

The Assembly was of the view that nature-based solutions (NbS) to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere needed to be part of the solutions for net zero, especially supporting forestry, peatland and wetland restoration, the use of wood in construction and enhancing carbon storage in soil.

With regards to coronavirus the 93% of members agreed or strongly agreed that “as lockdown eases, government, employers and/or others should take steps to encourage lifestyles to change to be more compatible with reaching net zero”. There was also calls for the transition to net zero to be “a cross-political party issue, and not a partisan one.”

For further detail see the report. In addition, Carbon Brief published a detailed Q&A on the work of the Assembly.

Reaction to the Report

The Assembly’s report was generally well received. The Guardian referred to its recommendations as “radical and plausible”. An article in the Spectator called its proposals “moderate and in the main fairly sensible”. Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the Climate Change Committee called for Ministers to listen and act on the recommendations, calling them “ balanced and proportionate”. For a detailed roundup of the press commentary see the Carbon Brief summary.

Unlike a Select Committee report, the Assembly’s report does not need to receive a formal response from Government. Alok Sharma, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy welcomed the publication of the report, stating that it would help shape the Government’s work in the run up to COP26 in 2021. The Prime Minister published a 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution on 18 November 2020. This included a range of policies that were considered by the Assembly, some of which were supported to a greater or lesser extent, and included the announcement that the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans, would be brought forward by ten years to 2030, and hybrids to 2035.

The Assembly’s report will be debated in the House of Commons on 26 November 2020.

[1]     The six House of Commons Select Committees who commissioned Climate Assembly UK are Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; Environmental Audit; Treasury; Housing, Communities and Local Government; Science & Technology; and Transport


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