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Analysis: Don’t forget – we still need a net zero emissions target in UK law

The  UK government committed, back in March, to enshrining the Paris Agreement’s goal of net zero emissions into UK law. This was an important symbolic admission that Paris was not just for Christmas; that real action was needed at national level to ensure new commitments were put into practice.

Following a cross-party campaign, led by Ed Miliband and backed by ClientEarth among others, Andrea Leadsom, then Energy Minister (now Environment Secretary) said of a net zero target: “The question is not whether, but how we do it.”

She undertook that the government would consider the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), and then discuss with MPs how best to move forward.

Now the government must do just that.

Time to act – but how?

Like government, the CCC is clearly convinced of the need in principle for a domestic net zero emissions target. This follows from the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals (limiting warming to 1.5C /“well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels) and more directly from its separate commitment to achieve net zero global emissions “in the second half of this century”. As the CCC notes, the UK cannot on any analysis be behind the curve on these international efforts.

Unfortunately, the CCC’s report on the implications of Paris has muddied the water. It treats the government’s commitment to implement a net zero target as “not a case of if, but when”. In fact, as noted, the government’s undertaking did not suggest a flexible timescale: its question was how to implement the change, not when.  The CCC goes on to suggest that now is not the right time for a net zero target in national law. We disagree.

Why net zero?

The advantages of a domestic net zero target are widely understood. Such a target would, says the CCC “be the signal internationally of support for ambitious climate action, and domestically of the need for complete decarbonisation beyond 2050.”

It would play a key role in giving investors confidence in government commitment to the direction of travel – a point ClientEarth stressed about the UK’s long-term emissions targets in its recent report, “Mind the Gap – Reviving the UK Climate Change Act”.

As the CCC says, a net zero target “could help support key zero-carbon options … and removal technologies” – both of which we will need to meet our Paris obligations – “as well as supply chains that contribute to both”.

What’s the delay, then?

Why, then, is the CCC’s conclusion that a domestic net zero target “should not be set now?” ClientEarth agrees with the CCC that the most pressing priority is the publication – in February, the government has said – of “a robust plan of measures to meet the legislated UK carbon budgets” and the delivery of those planned policies. Indeed, we have found that a plan that meets our fourth and fifth carbon budgets is a necessity if government is to remedy its non-compliance with the Climate Change Act.

But a net zero target would not undermine this in any way. The Act’s intended emissions trajectory currently stops abruptly at 2050, but we know that cuts will still be needed beyond that date. The CCC’s analysis suggests that extending the Act’s current ambition would imply net zero CO2 emissions by 2045-65 and net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2060-90. Extending the reach of the Climate Change Act’s targets beyond 2050 need not, at this stage, impact existing targets at all.

Laying the foundations for increasing ambition

Putting in place a net zero target would not be the same thing as increasing the ambition of our domestic emissions targets as part of the “ratchet” process under the Paris Agreement; the process by which all countries must tighten their goals over time.  The CCC has its reasons for advising against ratcheting up our ambition in that way just yet. But those arguments do not apply to the addition of a net zero target.

The current lack of feasible ‘bottom-up’ scenarios to achieve net zero emissions is not a reason to wait. The Climate Change Act does not require government to plan now how to meet its emissions targets 30, 40 or 50 years in advance (11 years is proving challenging enough). On the other hand, the Act has shown how the existence of longer-term goals is on its own valuable. Putting a net zero target in place now would yield all of the advantages identified by the CCC.

Planning ahead now

The lack of a credible plan to reach net zero emissions means we must plant a flag very clearly now so that questions of feasibility are attended to sooner rather than later, and pathways to greater ambition can open up in good time. We will never meet targets that don’t exist.

Any remaining objections are technical: the how of the government’s commitment. It is true that the implications of global temperature targets on the UK’s decarbonisation trajectory will evolve over time. Likewise, we may choose to count our emissions under the Act differently in future. But the Act is already flexible enough to absorb these changes.

Ready – and waiting – for net zero

The rapid entry into force of the Paris Agreement is an historic step forward. Now is the time for government to honour its pledge to bring the net zero emissions target of Paris into domestic law and to reassert the UK’s leadership on climate change at home and abroad. There is no reason for delay – and every reason to build on momentum now.

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