Experts: UK should set net zero emissions target

Published:25 April 2019

Speaking yesterday at a media briefing ahead of the publication of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) advice on adopting a net zero emissions target in the UK, Simon Clarke, MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, who was chairing the event, said that the UK should become the first major economy to set a net zero target in law that is compatible with the Paris climate change agreement:

Lord Adair Turner said that 'zero should mean zero'. Image: CBI, creative commons licence
Lord Adair Turner said that 'zero should mean zero'. Image: CBI, creative commons licence

“We need to do much more if we’re to deliver on what we promised at the Paris climate summit. And based on conversations I’ve had with Ministers, I believe Government will move forward on the Committee on Climate Change’s advice,” he said.

“That’s certainly what I want to see – that’s why I coordinated a letter to the Prime Minister requesting a UK net zero target before 2050, which has now been signed by 191 MPs right across the political spectrum. And it’s what the public wants to see – two-thirds of Britons believe it’s important that we cut our greenhouse gas emissions to zero, and at a time when faith in politics is at a marked low, this is something on which we can and should deliver.

“A number of other countries are declaring their intention to move to net zero between 2040 and 2050, and I think the UK should join them and become the first major economy to set a net zero target in law that’s compatible with the Paris Agreement.”

Lord Adair Turner, Chair of the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC), agreed, arguing that ‘zero should mean zero’:

“Two things have changed since we passed the Climate Change Act in 2008. One is that it is absolutely clear that the climate is changing and that it is man-made; there is now no legitimate debate about that. The second thing is that the costs of decarbonising have come down, and we have seen falls in the costs of wind, solar and batteries much bigger and faster than anyone expected – 65% for wind, 80% for solar and batteries,” he said.

“Just last year the Energy Transitions Commission, which I chair, showed that we can get to net zero in what have been regarded as ‘harder to decarbonise’ sectors such as heavy industry and transport within a few decades, and that the cost would be negligible. And so for the UK, we should set a target of net zero by 2050 – and if society is willing to accept more than a trivial cost, we could bring that date forward.

“But it is equally important to look at what zero means – and, zero should mean zero. We should have a target in 2050 that is zero within the UK, not zero by buying carbon offsets from other countries. That will really drive decarbonisation in all sectors of the economy.”

Alex Kazaglis, Principal of Vivid Economics, highlighted the feasibility of adopting a net zero target in the UK:

“Across all sectors, the options for moving to net zero exist – it’s not about finding new technologies, it’s about finding a route to market for those that exist already. And it is perfectly possible for the UK to move to net zero by 2050 with very little disruption,” he said.

“In the electricity sector, a net zero target means we need complete decarbonisation as early as possible. For home heating, we’d be rolling out a million electric heat pumps each year in the 2020s. We’d have nine million electric vehicles on the road by 2025. So, we’d do all the same things we’re doing for the existing 80% target, but we’d do it faster and deeper.

“Could we do it earlier than 2050? Yes, but we’d need movement on some issues that are outside the UK government’s usual scope, such as dietary choice, and we’d need international co-operation in areas such as international shipping and aviation. With all that, we could go earlier.”

Minette Batters, President of the National Farmers Union (NFU) reiterated the NFU aspiration to reach net zero agriculture in the UK by 2040:

“Last year’s extreme weather was a stark reminder of the challenges farmers face in maintaining yields and feeding livestock on the frontline of climate change. But not only can agriculture be part of the solution, we can also be a world leader in climate-friendly production,” she said.

“Technology and the bioeconomy present huge opportunities and that is why earlier this year I unveiled an ambitious aspiration for net zero agriculture in the UK by 2040. In order to achieve that, we will need to see the Government work with farmers and growers on the new technology and innovation needed to reach this goal.”

Matthew Fell, Chief UK Policy Director at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said that British businesses supported the adoption of a net zero target:

“Business is up for the net zero challenge – and many companies have made their own pledges for a net zero target. This is partly driven by public demand for action on climate change. But there are also economic opportunities ahead, and with other countries moving in the same direction there’s clearly a massive opportunity for exports, making net zero an essential part of ‘Brand Britain’ as we move into a new international era,” he said.

“But it won’t happen on its own – and in terms of what business needs from government, I would sum it up as ‘certainty, certainty, certainty’. Firstly, signing up to net zero will provide certainty about the destination. Secondly, we need certainty about the policy framework that’s going to get us there – an end to the chopping and changing that we’ve seen in recent years. And finally, political certainty so we don’t have big changes after every General Election; and it’s heartening therefore to see the strong cross-party consensus on net zero.

“The longer we delay, the harder it’s going to be. So, let’s get on with it.”

A recording of this media briefing is available on request.


  1. Lord Turner is a former chair of the CCC; in November last year, the Energy Transitions Commission which he chairs published a report on reaching net-zero carbon emissions from heavy industry and heavy-duty transport sectors by mid-century:
  2. In a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in January this year, NFU president Minette Batters said that British Farmers must aim for net zero agriculture emissions in the UK by 2040:
  3. In November 2018, Vivid Economics published a report commissioned by WWF to assess the feasibility of a net zero emissions target in the UK:
  4. In April 2019, Vivid published a report commissioned by the Aldersgate Group to identifying policy lessons from historical innovations that apply to the context of meeting net zero emissions in the UK:
  5. Simon Clarke has co-signed a letter with 191 other MPs asking the Prime Minister to back a UK net zero emissions target ahead of 2050: