Targeting 'net zero' emissions can unite Britain around a new economic mission

This article originally featured on The Telegraph online.

Climate change is not some theoretical future possibility – it is a present reality. 

The five warmest years in recorded history have been since 2010. Easter Monday was the hottest on record. This January, Australia experienced its warmest month ever, causing power outages after fuses overheated. Last year wildfires broke out north of the Arctic Circle.

We can choose to dismiss these events as a coincidence. We can ignore the fact that they have taken place alongside soaring levels of greenhouse gases. Or we can listen to the overwhelming majority of climate science which concludes that the evidence of humankind’s influence on the climate is now unanswerable.

Despite what you may have heard, the UK is taking action to tackle the existential threat of climate change, and it is right to recognise the progress we’ve already made. Since 1990, we have cut our emissions by 42 per cent while our economy has grown by two thirds. This means that we have, on a per-capita basis, reduced emissions faster while also growing our economy more than any other G7 nation. Last year saw a record amount of UK power generated from renewable sources – with over 30 per cent coming from renewables, and over 50 per cent from low carbon sources overall.

However, despite this strong track record, there is still much more work to do if we’re to keep control of our climate. Our current trajectory sets us on course for an 80 per cent reduction in our emissions by 2050 on 1990 levels – but the science is now clear that if we continue to pump even that remaining 20 per cent of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, climate change will accelerate and temperatures will continue to rise, along with its impacts and risks. 

Fail to strengthen our climate targets now and our children will grow up in a world of increased conflict over scarce resources, ever rising sea levels, more insecure food supplies, degraded wildlife and destroyed coral reefs. 

We also risk the truly terrifying prospect of hitting climate tipping points - such as the melting of arctic permafrost and subsequent release of huge stores of frozen greenhouse gases – that could mean we lose control of our climate for good. So to halt climate change at any level, we have to stop adding emissions to the atmosphere, as soon as feasibly possible. 

That’s why on 30 April I’m introducing a bill to commit the UK to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. If it gets onto the statute book, we would be the first G20 country to enshrine this commitment in law.

This legal commitment can also be a project of national renewal. It will require us to upgrade our leaky old housing stock and set a zero carbon standard for new builds – making the most efficient use of our energy. 100 per cent of our electricity will need to come from zero-carbon sources – including cheap renewables, nuclear, and gas with carbon capture and storage. As the costs of renewable power continue to tumble, this will help switching transport and heating to zero-carbon sources – including electricity, as well as biogas and hydrogen.

But while emissions can be cut virtually to zero in sectors such as electricity, transport and home heating, in others such as agriculture and aviation it may be more difficult. To make up for this, we’ll need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, balancing remaining emissions with removals (“negative emissions”).

Hence “net zero”. This means the restoration of the British countryside, with a great tree planting project – and it means new technologies such as carbon capture and storage. The rest of the world will need all need this carbon removal tech – and we can be the country to develop it, perfect it, and sell it. 

Unsurprisingly then the move to net zero is hugely popular with business, and it’s backed by a coalition of major corporates including Heathrow Airport, Iberdrola, Tesco, Thames Water and Unilever. Professional medical bodies such as the Royal Colleges of Nursing and General Practitioners see the potential for cleaner air and back a UK net zero target before 2050, while the NFU is advocating net zero for the UK agricultural sector by 2040.

This shows the real power of net zero – not just a project of moral necessity but one of economic renewal, too. 

Of course we can’t do this alone – which is why the UK is bidding to host the vital UN climate change conference in 2020, so that we can leverage our climate leadership and encourage our friends and allies to do more as well. And it’s true that despite the huge progress we’ve made in bringing down the costs of renewables, and the enormous potential from new clean technologies, we know that a transformation on this scale won’t be easy. The changes needed in every part of our economy will be profound. 

But the prize – of an economy renewed and a society united in a common purpose of no longer contributing to climate change – is more than worth it. Let’s go for net zero.