The former Labour leader and energy secretary said Britain should show leadership and send a clear signal to businesses by building on its existing target of cutting emissions by 80% by 2050 under the Climate Change Act.

The intervention, in a comment article for the Guardian, comes a week before world leaders including David Cameron and Barack Obama meet for a landmark climate change summit in Paris. Nearly 200 countries are due to attend the negotiations to thrash out a deal for emissions cuts beyond 2020 and financing for poorer countries to cope with global warming.

“When we did the Climate Change Act [in 2008] it did send a message around the world, and then people did follow. It was Britain saying we’re going to do these big reductions and put it in law. I think there is the prospect of that happening again,” Miliband said.

The Labour MP said he did not want to put a date on when the zero emissions target should be achieved, because that decision should be taken by the government’s statutory advisers. To avoid dangerous global warming, the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change has said emissions must be cut to near zero by the end of the century.

Nicholas Stern, the economist commissioned by the then chancellor Gordon Brown to assess the costs of inaction on climate change, said he supported a target of reducing emissions to zero but would not go so far as to say it should be written into law.

Sir David King, the foreign secretary’s special representative on climate change, said Miliband’s call was important and timely. “It stresses the importance of maintaining all-party political agreement on the commitments of the UK to act on climate change. This has already created the certainty on investments in the new low carbon sector that means this is now the fastest growing sector in the British economy, now employing over 450,000 people in Britain.”

Miliband said the UK’s emissions cuts needed to go from 80% to 100% because it would be required eventually, and would send an important signal to businesses. “We now know we will get to the point where the carbon budget is exhausted. It just makes logical sense for the backstop to be zero, not simply 80%. The 80% target is fine but in the end we are going to have to get to zero, and we might as well start to look at the questions of when and how.”

This summer the government’s statutory climate advisers warned that the UK’s existing carbon budgets could be missed. The group’s chairman John Gummer took the unusual step of singling out Conservative policy changes such as scrapping a target for all new homes to be zero carbon.

But Miliband said he was not interested in political point-scoring in his call for a zero emissions target, which he said was backed by Tory, Liberal Democrat, SNP and Green party MPs.

“I’m not in the business of trying to have a go at the government. Paris is too important. I genuinely hope they will look upon this as a sensible cross-party initiative which they can support,” he said.

French authorities have said the Paris summit will still go ahead despite the recent terror attacks, although authorities have forbidden a planned march that was expected to attract hundreds of thousands of people. Miliband, who attended the last major climate summit, in Copenhagen in 2009, said he was hopeful of a “decent” deal at Paris.

“The stakes are high … it’s very, very important that Paris is a success. By a success, I mean serious commitments from the major emitters, which we have. But crucially with this so-called ratchet mechanism for the ambition to be greater.”

Countries representing nearly 90% of emissions have put forward their climate pledges before the summit, but a UN analysis found they would still lead to temperature rises of 2.7-3C – more than the 2C limit to which leaders have agreed. The EU, China and the US, among others, have called for a five-yearly review mechanism to ratchet up those pledges to meet 2C. “It’s very important we embed that in the agreement,” Miliband said.

He admitted that while the Copenhagen summit had been a setback in some senses, it had also laid some of the groundwork – such as a promise of $100bn a year in climate aid for poorer countries – for any deal agreed in Paris. The Paris conference opens on 30 November and runs until 11 December.

Adam Vaughan

This story first appeared on the Guardian

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