The case for a net zero climate change target

By Jon Crooks

The Paris agreement necessitates an increase in our long term climate target to 100%. Or, in other words, we now need to set a ‘net zero’ emissions target.

“The House of Commons should …set a date by when the UK will achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) should then be asked to advise on what the date for the target should be, with that date then set in secondary legislation.” – Sandbag, ‘The case for a net zero climate change target”, 2015

Paris was the first truly global effort to reduce emissions. It lays the foundations for increasing international action and aims to hold the increase in global temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels, to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5C and to reach net-zero global emissions of greenhouse gases in the second half of the century.

This is more ambitious than the basis of the UK’s current statutory target for 2050, which is to reduce emissions to 80% and was based on the previous aim to hold the temperature rise close to 2C.

The Climate Change Act 2008

The UK signed up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1995 and The Climate Change Act was passed in 2008 to establish a framework to develop an economically credible emissions reduction path in line with that agreement. In doing so the UK showed leadership internationally by committing into law the action we would take in tackling climate change.

The Climate Change Act included a requirement on the Government to set legally binding ‘carbon budgets’ – a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the UK over a five-year period.

CCC_website_logoThe Committee on Climate Change (CCC) was set up to advise the Government on the carbon budgets and report to Parliament on progress made in reducing emissions. 

The first four carbon budgets have been put into legislation and run up to 2027. The proposed fifth carbon budget’s 57% cut in emissions by 2032 was laid out before Paris by the committee, and has yet to be legislated on.

In a letter to energy and climate change secretary, Amber Rudd, the CCC said that:

“…the pledged contributions by the EU and others have not yet changed. On that basis we repeat our recommendation that the fifth carbon budget be legislated at 1,765 MtCO2.”

This is very disappointing as we’re failing to increase the ambition in light of the Paris climate deal. Whilst we could take aim at the CCC for the advice given, as some campaigners have done, the fact of the matter is they are working to legislation that is now, quite frankly, out of date.

What should this mean for the UK?

The former Secretary for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband, wrote in the Guardian last November, even before the Paris summit had begun, conveying what the science was already telling us; that we would need to go further with our emissions targets to achieve net-zero emissions at some point in the second half of this century. The Paris Agreement subsequently quite rightly acknowledged the very same thing.  

Initially, this means switching to 100% clean energy by 2050 and making our energy system more efficient and productive. It’s also about putting in place the right infrastructure – buildings and transport. Further down the line we will need to make more savings in emissions in more difficult ways and it will mean cancelling out any residual emissions from agriculture and industry by capturing carbon from the atmosphere through new technology and/or biological means – creating carbon sinks through reforestation and sequestration in the soil.

The net-zero emissions goal is crucial and already many cities and companies are adopting this goal. As Ed Miliband pointed out:

“…the right step now would be for Britain to become the first major country to enshrine net zero emissions in law, with the date determined by advice from the independent Committee on Climate Change.

He went on to say that that this:

“…would show our determination to face up to this existential challenge. It will provide an essential framework for business and government so that we make the right decisions now on key energy and infrastructure issues. And it will inspire the inventors, engineers and businesses that can deliver on this challenge.”

From Ed Miliband’s conversations with people across the House of Commons, including the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Caroline Lucas of the Greens and Conservatives such as Nick Hurd and Graham Stuart (chair of Globe, the international parliamentarians group on climate change), it is clear there is cross-party support.

Ed Miliband again:

“Paris must be the start of a journey of the whole world towards this goal. And far from this commitment holding Britain back, we can be a leader again on climate change. Leadership which does not mean harm to our economy, but will put us ahead in the race for the new jobs, businesses and advantages of this new world. I hope the government will support this initiative. We can build an alliance, put aside our party differences as we have before, and seize this moment.”


Now that COP21 in Paris is over, we know the direction of travel, and attention is turning to the hard work of getting there. To use an analogy put forward by Anthony Hobley, CEO of Carbon Tracker at the Hub Eco Series event I attended, it’s like we now have planning permission to build a house, but now we have got to get on and build it.

Before we start laying those foundations and building that house, we need to go back to the architect and make sure everybody’s got a copy of the plans. Paris was an amazing achievement, but it’s a global deal that is underpinned by individual countries all doing their bit to to achieve the same goals. The UK took the lead in producing GHG emissions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Industrial Revolution that began here ultimately transformed society into the fossil fuel dependent society we have become.

It is right therefore that we also led the world in taking action to reduce emissions by becoming the first country to legislate for deep, long-term cuts and it is essential that we continue this leadership and remain on track by introducing updated legislation and making the right decision about the period to 2032, which the government now faces.

Perhaps we need to look to history for how we improve current legislation. The 2008 Climate Change Bill was preceded by a Private Member’s Bill of the same name drafted by Friends of the Earth and brought before Parliament on 7 April 2005. Would FoE be willing to draft an amended 2016 Climate Change Bill based on the Paris Agreement?

A Private Member’s Bill needs a sponsor, who can be any member of parliament (Miliband for example, though it might gain more traction if it came from one of the two Conservatives mentioned – Nick Hurd or Graham Stuart).

Looking back again at the history of the the first Climate Change Act, shortly after the 2005 general election, 412 of the 646 Members of Parliament signed an early day motion calling for a Climate Change Bill to be introduced. Only three other early day motions had ever been signed by more than 400 MPs. On 8 June 2008, following the Second Reading of the Bill, only five members of the House of Commons voted against it.

I think this can be done, we just need to build the political will.

Further Reading:

In January, a report was commissioned by Sandbag to explore why the UK, in the light of the Paris Agreement, could consider an additional ‘net zero emissions’ long-term goal.


Originally posted on on 19 January 2016