The announcement by clean growth minister Claire Perry during the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm) raises the possibility the UK could implement a target to reduce emissions to “net zero” by 2050, tightening the existing goal to cut greenhouse gases by 80% by that date.

Such a target would require more stringent cuts to carbon in the short as well as long term, and a much faster transformation of key parts of the economy – including energy, transport, industry and housing – than has yet been contemplated. The government’s statutory advisers would be expected to set out key choices on how this could be achieved.

Under the global Paris agreement, countries have committed to curbing temperature rises to “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to keep them to 1.5C, to prevent dangerous climate change.

Such a move will require the world to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero in the second half of the century. The UK government pledged in 2016 to enshrine a zero target in law, but has not yet passed any legislation.

After a global scientific review of the impacts of, and action needed to keep to, a 1.5C rise is published this autumn, the UK’s climate advisers will be asked to review the country’s 2050 target, Perry said in a speech on Tuesday.

Many actions under Conservative-led governments since 2010, however, have dismayed climate campaigners and may have to be reconsidered. These include the failure to insulate the UK’s draughty homes, limits on renewable energy, the scrapping of carbon capture and storage projects and tax breaks for fossil fuels.

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said the review was extremely important and could provide a “valuable lead” for other countries.

“The data shows that the challenges posed by emissions from transport – land, sea and air – and our reliance on gas for heating will have to be confronted as a matter of urgency.

“Fossil-fuel dependent cars and vans need to be removed from sale by 2030, a step-change in energy efficiency standards in our construction industry should be prioritised, and the government must accept that no new runway at Heathrow will fit inside our carbon budget,” he added.

The government’s announcement was welcomed by others at the Commonwealth summit, where climate change has been seen as one of the key issues under discussion. Nearly half of the Commonwealth nations are classed as “small island developing states”, which are the most vulnerable to climate change.

Frank Bainimarama, prime minister of Fiji, which currently holds the presidency of the UN’s climate forum, told the meeting: “I am encouraged by Britain’s undertaking to review its climate targets with a view to increasing ambition. The [targets] we all promised to make in the Paris agreement should be setting high standards for the rest of the world to follow. But just as importantly, we in the Commonwealth can show how cooperation based on trust can supply the finance, technology and skilled resources to deliver the necessary transformation in our economies.”

After the report, she said: “We will be seeking the advice of the UK’s independent advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, on the implications of the Paris agreement for the UK’s long-term emissions reduction targets.”

The committee recently suggested the UK would have to meet the net-zero target by 2045-50 in order to do its bit to ensure global temperature rises do not exceed 1.5C.

A temperature rise of 1.5C is seen by some countries, such as low lying islands at risk of rising sea levels, as the limit beyond which their very existence is threatened.

Laurence Tubiana, a key architect of the Paris agreement and chief executive of the European Climate Foundation, said: “For a safe climate we need all governments to aim for cutting pollution to net zero levels by 2050.

“This decision to review Britain’s long-term climate target sends a strong message to the EU and other big economies that London is committed to the Paris agreement, and now it’s time they too considered what more they can do.”

Ways of meeting the net-zero target could include investing in projects to grow trees and restore soils, to take up greater carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well as more controversial measures such as investing in emissions reduction projects overseas. Even with such methods, the UK is likely to have to bring forward targets on phasing out diesel and petrol engines, and expand renewable energy generation and, potentially, nuclear power.

Fiona Harvey

This article first appeared on the Guardian

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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