The UK government must immediately set a legally binding target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, its official advisers have said, signalling an end to the nation’s role in driving climate change.
Doing so will be challenging, said the Committee on Climate Change, meaning the end of petrol and diesel cars and gas boilers, less meat on plates, quadrupling clean electricity generation and planting an estimated 1.5bn trees.
It will require tens of billions of pounds of investment every year, the CCC said – about 1-2% of Britain’s GDP. But not acting would be far more costly and the changes would deliver a cleaner and healthier society, the advisers said, as well as potentially bolstering the UK economy and jobs.
The CCC’s request for urgent action comes after Labour, Scottish National party and the Welsh assembly declared a climate emergency. It also follows a week of high-profile protests by the Extinction Rebellion group and Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who inspired the global school strikes, telling the UK government that its support for fossil fuels and airport expansion is “beyond absurd”.
The UK is forecast to miss existing carbon targets in 2025 and 2030. Hitting zero emissions in 2050 will require a leap in the ambition of government policy, particularly on heating and transport.
The zero emissions goal would fulfil the pledge made by the UK when it signed the Paris agreement in 2015 to limit the rise in global temperature to as close to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels as possible. In October, the world’s scientists warned of severe global impacts above this rise.
The CCC’s recommendation was welcomed by many politicians, business leaders, energy and water companies, doctors and farmers. Some green groups, including WWF, called for zero emissions by 2045, while Extinction Rebellion activists have said 2025. The CCC said the 2050 date could be brought forward if good progress was made.
The former environment secretary John Gummer, now Lord Deben, the chair of the CCC, said the zero emissions target for 2050 must be passed into law immediately. “We [must] do it now. The urgency is not just a matter of a shortness of time, but the quicker you do it, the cheaper it is.”
Chris Stark, the chief executive of the CCC, said planning to cut emissions rapidly could begin as soon as the zero emissions target was set. “I would like to see it happen as soon as possible, preferably before the big UN summit in September,” he added.
“We are not asking people to lead a miserable life, we are looking to have as fulfilled a life as today, but to do it in a way that takes responsibility for the future by respecting the planet which gives us life,” he said. “We would have cleaner air and we would live in a better society.”
As a wealthy nation, and one with a long history of carbon emissions, the UK had a responsibility to lead in the fight against global warming, Gummer said. “If we want the world to win then we have got to set that example.”
The CCC target is for “net zero” because some activities, such as flying and farming, will unavoidably produce some emissions in 2050. But these will be balanced by taking carbon out of the air by growing trees or burying CO2 under the ground.
The government did not immediately accept the recommendations but Greg Clark, the business secretary, whose department has responsibility for climate change, said: “This report sets us on a path to become the first major economy to legislate to end our contribution to global warming entirely.”
Rain Newton-Smith, the chief economist of the business group the CBI, said: “The CCC recommendations mark a new dawn for climate change action in the UK. Recent protests have shown the strength of public passion and sense of urgency. What we need now is a supportive and timely response from the government.”
Steve Waygood, the chief responsible investment officer of Aviva Investors, said: “The CCC’s report makes a significant contribution, showing that a net zero economy is necessary, feasible and desirable.”
There is wide political support for the 2050 net zero target, with almost 200 MPs already in favour. Michael Howard, a former Tory party leader and now a peer, said: “The science is clear – we must not shirk from this challenge, nor should we be afraid of it.”
Laurence Tubiana, who was France’s climate change ambassador when the Paris deal was sealed, said the CCC report was hugely important, adding: “I look forward to seeing many other countries in Europe, and beyond, follow suit.”
Many scientists backed the CCC report. Prof Paul Ekins of University College London said: “Hopefully it will lay to rest once and for all the misperception that deep decarbonisation is either impossibly difficult or impossibly expensive.”
But Prof Mark Maslin, also at UCL, said: “The zero-carbon target is essential, but the date of 2050 is too far in the future. The UK must adopt a 2030 zero-carbon target.”