The UK can end its contribution to global warming by 2050, the government’s official climate change advisor has claimed in a report released last week. The Committee on Climate Change’s report, commissioned by the British government in 2018, explains that the UK can reach “net zero emissions” by 2050 using “known technologies” and strengthening existing environmental policies. It argues that the “foundations are already in place” to achieve this target, and that it “should be put into law as soon as possible”.
The report details the key steps crucial in achieving this target, including: quadrupling the current supply of low-carbon electricity; making electric vehicles the only purchasable option from 2035 or earlier; increasing tree planting rates; and developing carbon capture and storage capabilities (as a necessity). It argues this would involve an initial cost of around 1-2% of GDP per annum, but could in fact be economically beneficial, as the UK experiences an “industrial boost” via its leadership in low-carbon products and services.
The report has received widespread political and business support. Business Secretary Greg Clark, whose department is responsible for tackling climate change, claimed the report “sets us on a path to become the first major economy to legislate to end our contribution to global warming entirely”, and businesses including Siemens, Coca-Cola, Marks & Spencer, and John Lewis, have come out in support.
The response, however, has not been universally positive. The climate activist group Extinction Rebellion, who in April launched a civil disobedience campaign that successfully shut down parts of central London for days on end, released a statement claiming it represents “business as usual with a greener tinge”. They argue that aiming to reach net zero emissions by 2050 “condemns us to a bleak future” and that “we may as well not have a target at all”. According to their statement, the CCC’s target would afford the planet only a 50% chance of keeping warming to below 1.5°C – the level the IPCC has set as a limit needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change – and would unfairly place the burden of meeting this target upon developing nations.
They too draw attention to the financial side of the report. The CCC report assures the government that reaching net zero by 2050 is economically viable, costing only 1-2% of GDP over the period. Extinction Rebellion argue that this demonstrates an imperative to bring forward this target – “are we really only willing to pay 2% to avoid disaster when we could afford to go much faster?”. Their statement questions whether the UK is willing to permit a 50% chance of “the collapse of our society”, in order to save 1-2 percentage points of GDP. The group argues that the climate crisis requires a “war time” response from the government, and thus the equivalent economic commitment demanded in such circumstances.
Similar objections have been raised by climate scientists. Professor Mark Maslin at UCL argues that “the date of 2050 is too far in the future”, and that a “2030 target” is more appropriate. Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester, describes the report’s plans as “business as usual, albeit with a sizeable green twist”, arguing that it involves an unequal distribution of burdens in reducing emissions that leaves influential high-emitting groups “unencumbered by policies tailored towards their carbon-intensive lifestyles”.
The CCC’s report then, sets out plans that involve significant intensification of government action in tackling climate change. With crisis looming this seems an obvious positive. Dissenting voices, however, argue that it does not go nearly far enough, and leaves us open to the worst effects of climate change.
For now, it seems essential that the government at the very least meets the targets set out by the report. Without even the 2050 target, warming will far exceed the 1.5°C limit (the CCC claims the current trajectory of global emissions will lead to around a 3°C rise by 2100). Such a rise would involve over 275 million people seeing their homes underwater according to the non-profit Climate Central. The IPCC reports that a rise of just 2°C would see a near-total (>99%) destruction of coral reefs, an increase in water shortages of more than 50%, more heat-related deaths, and a greater frequency of extreme weather events – with all these effects getting progressively worse as we approach 3°C of warming.
One thing seems clear then, whether or not the government aims for net zero emissions by 2050 or 2030, action must be taken – on our current path, crisis seems inevitable.