The government has amended the Climate Change Act 2008 to set a target of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Instead of Brexit, outgoing prime minister Theresa May will be leaving as her legacy a commitment to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Following her announcement on 11 June, on 27 June 2019 the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019 came into force, making the UK the first G7 country to legislate for net zero emissions.

This order amends the Climate Change Act 2008 so that the minimum percentage by which the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 must be lower than the 1990 baseline is increased from 80% to 100%. Surprisingly, given the warnings from chancellor Philip Hammond about the cost, the accompanying explanatory memorandum states that “An impact assessment has not been prepared for this instrument” and “There is no, or no significant, impact on business, charities or voluntary bodies”.

This order is a significant development in the UK’s ambition to move towards achieving net zero emissions, but does not itself provide solutions or lay down measures for achieving this target. The Climate Change Act 2008 creates a system of carbon budgets, which set limits on net UK carbon emissions, divided into five year periods. Currently, carbon budgets have been set until 2032, but these are likely to need to be amended to take into consideration the increase in the target for 2050, so the new target has a chance of being achieved.

If the UK carbon account does not stay within budget, the government will be open to judicial review; however, the most which the courts could do if a review succeeded would be to make a declaration that the government had failed to comply with its duties in the Climate Change Act 2008; the courts would not have the power to impose other sanctions on the government to rectify the situation. The biggest incentive for the government to reach the net zero target would be likely to be the reputational damage that the government might suffer if it failed to meet the target and was the subject of an adverse declaration by a court.

The change in the target has been welcomed by the Environment Agency, with the chair saying that the amendment is “not only the right thing to tackle the climate emergency for future generations but a huge opportunity to increase our energy efficiency, improve our resilience and deliver a greener, healthier society”. However, the real challenge will be the adoption and implementation of policies across all sectors to ensure that the target is achieved. We can therefore expect to see new policies in areas such as:

  • continuing the phase-out of fossil fuels for power generation, developing carbon capture and storage, and increasing low carbon forms of power generation such as renewables and nuclear;
  • the decarbonisation of the transport sector;
  • reducing emissions from buildings, both domestic and commercial;
  • reducing of emissions from the agricultural sector; and
  • reducing the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill.

The government has also (in spite of the Committee on Climate Change’s advice) not ruled out the use of international carbon credits to help achieve the target. The government’s justification for this is that investment in international carbon emissions reduction projects may offer better value for money than investment in similar projects in the UK.