The UK government has announced a new plan to tackle climate change – achieve "net zero" greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. This follows the recommendations of the government's Committee on Climate Change last month as well as the advice and coaxing of various scientific and activist groups.
If it goes ahead, the proposal would amend the 2008 Climate Change Act, extending the current target of an 80 percent reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 to 100 percent. It would also make the UK the very first G7 nation to commit to net zero emissions via legislation, Downing Street officials have said.
To achieve the goal, the UK will have to see strong cuts to GHG emissions in the transport, farming, and industrial sectors as well as in the home. This can be accomplished through switches to clean energy, reductions in energy waste, and improvements in building insulation. But the government hasn't ruled out a more controversial method – that is carbon offsetting through the planting of trees or the capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
"As the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, it is right that the UK is the world’s first major economy to commit to completely end its contribution to climate change, but trying to shift the burden to developing nations through international carbon credits undermines that commitment," said Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, reports The Guardian.
"This type of offsetting has a history of failure and is not, according to the government’s climate advisers, cost-efficient."
According to a report published by the advisory Committee on Climate Change last month, if other countries followed suit and committed to a similar timeframe, there would be a 50-50 chance of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. That is the very maximum temperatures should be allowed to rise if we don't want to see catastrophic climate change, a UN report warned last year.
But many are saying that this does not go far enough, arguing that net zero by 2050 is too late to avoid severe climate change and its repercussions. Others are skeptical it is even possible.
While some switches may be relatively painless – e.g. the adoption of LED lights – others will require heavy investment and the government has been less than clear on where that money is expected to come from.
Chancellor Philip Hammond has suggested the target could cost the country £1 trillion ($1.275 trillion). Acting energy minister Chris Skidmore, on the other hand, predicts costs will work out at 1 to 2 percent of the nation's GDP (aka the same figure factored in for the 80 percent reduction rate).
Others have pointed out that the cost of doing nothing could be much higher, while investment in green energy could be a boost to the UK economy.
"Achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions is necessary, feasible and cost-effective," Professor Phil Taylor, head of engineering at Newcastle University, told the BBC.
Adding, "UK policy is still way off the mark and the foundations are not in place to be able to meet this target."
There is more reason to remain at least somewhat skeptical – it is not the first time the UK gov has announced such plans. Time travel back to a pre-Brexit 2016 when energy minister Andrea Leadsom promised to enshrine zero carbon emissions by 2050 into law.
Hopefully, this time – without a contentious referendum result getting in the way and with a national climate emergency declaration – it will have a better chance of making it into law.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, smaller countries (and states) have set their own, more ambitious dates. These include Norway (2030), Finland (2035), Sweden (2045), and California (2045).