The UK Government’s net-zero commitment: What happens next?

A statutory instrument to amend the Climate Change Act of 2008 to account for a net-zero target by 2050 will be laid in Parliament today (12 June), marking a first among the G7 nations. But what, exactly, happens next?

The UK Government’s net-zero commitment: What happens next?

The announcement follows months of climate protests by students and groups such as Extinction Rebellion - but what happens next? 

Announced late on Tuesday evening (11 June), Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to implement the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), creating a legally binding net-zero carbon target for 2050, has been widely welcomed across the UK’s green economy and by policymakers from all major parties.

While details regarding how the UK plans to reach net-zero emissions remain to be set out, the Government has confirmed that it will, broadly, follow the CCC’s framework, which No 10 has agreed could be delivered using between 1-2% of GDP in 2050. This is the same level of funding currently allocated to work related to compliance with the Climate Change Act’s existing 2050 target of an 80% emissions cut, compared to a 1990 baseline.

However, the Government’s plans, due to be laid in Parliament this afternoon, will deviate from the CCC recommendations through the use of international carbon credits. It is also widely expected that the Government will not adopt the CCC’s recommendation of bringing its 2040 ban on new petrol and diesel car sales forward to 2035 or sooner.

Moreover, most experts believe that the Government will not make any amendments to the upcoming fourth and fifth carbon budgets in order to spur faster progress towards the new 2050 goal. The UK is currently well off-track to meeting the targets laid out in these budgets, largely due to slow progress in decarbonising sectors such as transport and heat, and has, controversially, agreed to carry forward emissions reductions which have already taken place in a bid to rectify this trend.

With all this in mind, edie explores the next steps which policymakers are set to take on the road to net-zero.

This week…

This afternoon (12 June) will see May lay her amendment to the Climate Change Act in Parliament for the first time, less than 24 hours after the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee’s chair Rachel Reeves MP introduced a new bill for legislating on net-zero to the House.

MPs will be given the opportunity to debate the amendments but will only have the power to put forward specific changes to May’s plans and will not be granted any request to withdraw them entirely.

May’s plans are expected to receive broad support from across the political spectrum. However, some MPs have already taken umbrage with some of their specifics. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has expressed concerns that they “do not go far or fast enough”, for example, while Work and Pension Secretary Esther McVey has claimed that more needs to be done to couple decarbonisation with the protection of social and economic security for working-class people.

Today will also see May officially launch the UK’s bid to host the COP 26 climate conference in London in December 2020. The Green Alliance has claimed that the move to legislate for net-zero is a “reason to be the host of the pivotal conference if ever there was one”.

Next month…

If the fact that MPs, the business community and the general public were calling on the Government to legislate for net-zero just weeks after the CCC advice was published is anything to go by, the next month or so is likely to involve these and other stakeholders making rallying cries regarding a framework laying out the specifics of how the UK’s net-zero transition will be delivered.

July will also see the new leader of the Conservative Party announced and appointed, after the race for leadership officially began on Monday (10 June). The appointment is expected to take place on the week commencing 22 July, with former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove widely regarded as the first and second favourite to take the role respectively.

Around the same time, the Government’s new youth steering group on future climate policy is due to begin its review on progress to date against existing national commitments regarding climate, waste and biodiversity loss. Set up by DCMS and led by the British Youth Council, the group is the first of its kind and has been created in the wake of the #SchoolStrike4Climate movement, pioneered by Greta Thunberg. The group consists of 30 people between the ages of 15 and 24. 

By 2025…

By 2025, the third carbon budget will be distant history, having expired in 2022, and the UK will be working within its fourth (2023-2027) carbon budget. If this is to happen, there are a number of policy gaps that will need to be “plugged”, across areas ranging from transport and heat to emissions trading. 

Green economy experts have also predicted that, by 2025, the UK’s adoption of a legally binding net-zero goal will encourage other nations to follow suit. The only other nations to have implemented such a goal to date, as of today (11 June 2019), are Sweden and New Zealand.

However, if this turns out not to be the case, the UK will legally be allowed to revoke its net-zero legislation and revert to the Climate Change Act’s original target. This caveat to its legally binding target was first proposed by Chancellor Philip Hammond, who previously caused anger among green campaigners by claiming that spending cuts for schools, hospitals and the police force would be needed to fund total decarbonisation of the UK economy, which he estimated at £1trn.

Sarah George

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