UK commits to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050

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The UK will commit to a legally-binding goal of slashing its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by the middle of the century, under a law to be laid in parliament on Wednesday.

The goal is the most ambitious on long-term climate change of any major economy. It will be seen as an attempt by outgoing prime minister Theresa May to build a legacy beyond Brexit.

“Now is the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children,” said May in a statement.

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The net zero target marks a dramatic increase in ambition from the existing target of an 80 per cent cut. Net zero means some industries are expected to still be producing emissions in 2050, but these will be offset by other measures, such as tree planting.

£1 trillion to transform the economy

The decision to push ahead with the tougher goal comes despite complaints from parts of the UK government. The Treasury warned May last week that moving to net zero would cost in excess of £1 trillion – more than government advisers had said – and the implications of setting the target should be better understood before it was set in law. Downing Street made an apparent nod to concerns, promising a review within five years, to see if other countries are taking similar action and “industries do not face unfair competition”.

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, two of the frontrunners in the race for the Conservative party leadership and to be the next PM, have both publicly supported the more ambitious goal. May’s move to adopt net zero was welcomed by the government’s advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which called for the higher ambition last month, and follows months of protests by school pupils and campaigners calling for tougher action. The CBI business group said the legislation was: “the right response to the global climate crisis, and firms are ready to play their part in combating it.”

However, the government said it would “retain the ability to use international carbon credits”, which the CCC has advised against. The CCC says the goal should be met within the UK’s borders, partly because carbon credits will be expensive if other countries take action. Greenpeace said the caveat undermined the net zero commitment.

Ministers will introduce a statutory instrument on Wednesday, which would amend the Climate Change Act of 2008, the law underpinning the existing 80 per cent goal. MPs will need to vote the measure through in the commons. Only 3 MPs voted against the original law 11 years ago.