Greenpeace fears offsetting emissions by planting trees outside the UK will not work. -Getty
Greenhouse gas emissions in the UK will be cut to almost zero by 2050, under the terms of a new government plan to tackle climate change.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May said reducing pollution would also benefit public health and cut NHS costs. Britain is the first major nation to propose this target - and it has been widely praised by green groups. But some say the phase-out is too late to protect the climate, and others fear that the task is impossible. The UK already has a 2050 target - to reduce emissions by 80%. That was agreed by MPs under the Climate Change Act in 2008, but will now be amended to the new, much tougher, goal.
The actual terminology used by the government is "net zero" greenhouse gases by 2050. That means emissions from homes; transport, farming and industry will have to be avoided completely or - in the most difficult examples - offset by planting trees or sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere. The government's advisory Committee on Climate Change recommended the "net zero" target in May. Its report said if other countries followed the UK, there was a 50-50 chance of staying below the recommended 1.5C temperature rise by 2100.
A 1.5C rise is considered the threshold for dangerous climate change. Laurence Tubiana, an architect of the crucial Paris climate agreement, told the BBC: "This is a historic commitment that will reverberate right around the world."All eyes will now turn on the rest of the EU to match this pledge." Theresa May said the UK led the world to wealth through fossil fuels in the industrial revolution, so it was appropriate for Britain to lead in the opposite direction.
"We have made huge progress in growing our economy and the jobs market while slashing emissions," she said. "Now is the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children. We must lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth."
Number 10 said it was "imperative" other countries followed suit, so there would be a review within five years to ensure other nations were taking similarly ambitious action and British industries were not facing unfair competition. If ministers decided to clamp down on meat-eating or on flying, that would meet serious opposition.
But the government will attempt to make the clean revolution as painless as possible. Technology improvements like LED light bulbs, for instance, save emissions without people noticing.The same is true if people get hydrogen central heating instead of gas, or if they are obliged to drive electric cars rather than petrol vehicles. But there will need to be a massive investment in clean energy generation - and that has to be funded by someone.
The government hasn't yet spelled out if the cost will fall on bill-payers, or tax-payers, or the fossil fuel firms that have caused climate change. Chancellor Philip Hammond has warned of a potential cost of £1 trillion by 2050. The cash will have to come from somewhere, he said - maybe from schools, hospitals and the police.
However, Chris Skidmore, the acting energy minister, said the costs would amount to between 1 and 2% of the UK's GDP - which was the same amount factored in to reach the previous 80% reduction target. Therefore it would not be the case that there would be less money to spend elsewhere, he said.
He added that the green economy would generate jobs and the cost of green technologies was coming down all the time. The climate change contrarian Bjorn Lomborg, author of Skeptical Environmentalist, said: "Hammond is right to highlight the cost - and in fact, he is likely to be underestimating the real price tag."
Campaigners said Hammond's sums did not take into account the benefits of cleaner air and a more stable climate. Following the Committee on Climate Change's recommendations last month, scientists, campaigners and health professionals have been urging May to bring in a net zero target before she stands down.
The government will lay a "statutory instrument" in the Commons on Wednesday - a tactic that allows it to be fast-tracked through both houses of Parliament if other parties agree - which on this issue they generally do.
Like any government decision it could be overturned by future governments. But the majority of Tory leadership candidates are backing it - and revoking the Act would need a majority Commons vote at a time when the public appear very concerned about the climate.
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