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Net zero 2050: From pledge to practice

Published on October 27, 2021

In 2015, the UK government, along with 196 other nations, signed the Paris Agreement on climate change. This commits the signatories to a net-zero pledge on carbon emissions. Now, almost six years later and with the 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP26) nearing, have the commitments made in Paris been kept and what will it take to turn this from pledge to practice?

What is the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement is an international treaty, committing the signatory nations to defined emissions reductions. Adopted at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris in December 2015, the treaty aims to set a benchmark by which the 197 nations can achieve meaningful emissions reductions and limit the impact of climate-change-related global heating. The agreement represents an action plan for how to limit global heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the maximum amount of warming that is allowable if we are to prevent catastrophic environmental degradation, as examined in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report.

What is the UK’s net-zero pledge?

Through its signing of the Paris Agreement, the United Kingdom is committed to a nationally determined contribution (NDC) of achieving net-zero emissions on or before 2050. This emissions reduction is measured against levels recorded in 1990, when the UK emitted the equivalent of 794 million tonnes (MtCO2e) of greenhouse gases. The UK’s pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 is further reinforced by the Climate Change Act 2008, which bolsters emissions goals with a range of commitments for the protection and regeneration of our natural environment.

What action is required to meet the 2050 pledge?

Since the agreement was signed, efforts have been made by the government, institutions and businesses to move towards a net-zero future. Measures such as the enactment of a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 along with a ban on new gas boilers in newly developed housing from 2025 are a step in the right direction. As these are two of the most substantial sources of emissions in the UK, reducing our use of fossil fuels and their derivatives for transport and heating, things we use every day in every household, will contribute to an overall emissions reduction.

Further key actions, such as increasing our clean energy generation to outstrip that of gas-firedower stations or investing in our green spaces to restore and preserve woodland, peat and grasslands, will also make significant contributions to restoring our natural environment and reducing damaging emissions levels.

But, as the Climate Change Committee (CCC) outlines in its 2021 Progress Report to Parliament, the government has been too slow in acting on the targets it has set. No matter how impactful these targets have the potential to be, only action will see the effects being felt. Action needs to be accelerated, to not only mitigate the harmful consequences of high emissions, but also to adapt to a changing world.

What has been done to meet the 2050 pledge?

The CCC report highlights two big areas in which there have been considerable changes in recent years. Renewable energy generation has seen big investments, thus this represents one of the largest emissions reductions in the past year. This is also the case for transport, which has seen considerable changes with the adoption of electric vehicles as a viable alternative to traditional petrol and diesel. Following the sixth Carbon Budget, enacted in April this year, the government further committed itself to reaching a 63% emissions reduction from 2019 levels by 2035. With such a significant commitment and notable policy actions, it is interesting to observe that a 13% emissions reduction was achieved in 2020, bringing national carbon output down to 435 MtCO2e, according to the CCC’s assessment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on emissions. Globally, the grounding of aviation and the end of regular commuting for many have resulted in a significant drop in carbon. The pandemic year has shown that change is possible and, with focused action, the benefits of reducing our dependency on cars, for example, can be maintained. Preventing this from becoming an anomaly, and instead a trend, requires concerted action.

Pledge to practice: what action is needed now?

Now, efforts need to be accelerated. Taking action now, at a faster rate, is the only way to meet the pledges set by the government on carbon reduction. The answer to this is not only in switching to less carbon-intensive resources, like scaling up wind and solar energy production and replacing cars with electric vehicles. Action needs to go beyond our choices of activity and ultimately, to reduce demand. Improving resource and energy efficiency is intrinsic to our ability to mitigate and adapt to a warmer world. National housing stock is aging and with it comes low energy efficiency that means we require more energy to heat our homes when it is lost to the outside environment. Measures such as insulation improvements will reduce our demand for energy. Reduced demand means less waste and lower emissions. Reducing consumption across the board is one of the most powerful tools we have to combat rising temperatures. This, combined with the electrification of transport, industry and heating, will together have a noticeable impact. A new net zero strategy published by the government in October takes further steps towards this goal. It aims to fully decarbonise energy systems by 2035, treble woodland creation in the next three years and provide grants for the installation of heat pumps.

Supporting the natural environment, in combination with efforts to reduce resource consumption, can help make radical changes to net carbon emissions. Restoring green spaces across the country, through woodland, peat, grassland and wetland action can sequester some of the current greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time supporting biodiversity and recovery.

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