The UK has announced that it is increasing the ambition of its climate targets – but delivery requires a clear, costed plan setting out how they will be met.
In a big year for climate action, this is a big week. The Biden-hosted Earth Summit on Thursday aims to put pressure on big emitters to increase their ambition ahead of the crucial COP26 summit. And the UK has announced it will lead the charge, by setting a new target to cut emissions by 78% on 1990 levels by 2035 and – for the first time – to formally integrate emissions from international aviation and shipping into its targets.
Politicians looking to lead on climate change like nothing more than setting targets. There are good reasons for that: action won’t happen without them. But the flipside is that announcing targets is easier than taking the action to meet them.
First, the good news from a climate perspective: this is a massive step change in ambition. Until 2019, we had a target to cut emissions by 57% by 2030; about 65% by 2035; and 80% by 2050. Since then, we’ve increased our ambition: a 68% cut by 2030, 78% by 2035, and net zero by 2050.
But 1990 isn’t a helpful baseline. From where we are now, the new 2035 target is the equivalent of a 63% cut in just 15 years.
For comparison, the UK has cut emissions by just over 30% in the last 15 years – a world-leading performance. That has been almost entirely delivered by cutting emissions from our electricity generation. But we now need to more than double the pace of our emission reduction.
Note: 2030 target estimated taking into account international aviation and shipping; 2040 and 2045 targets are estimates based on credible trajectory
A (net) zero sum game
So in the last 2 years, the UK has burnished its reputation for climate leadership through a strategy of clear and world-leading targets. It has rightly received plaudits for doing so. But the target-setting strategy has run out of road; there are no more targets to legislate for. If the UK wants to maintain its reputation for leadership – and meet the targets it has set – it needs to act.
The first of our new targets is only 9 years away. Meeting it requires massive action across all emitting sectors. Continued decarbonisation of power generation, and nudges in the right direction elsewhere, won’t do it.
As a former colleague once said to me: “You have to do it all, in parallel. This is a set menu, not à la carte”.
So what’s on the menu? To its credit, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) doesn’t just say what the target should be, it sets out its assessment of how we get there (see page 27) – with technology deployment and behaviour change requirements broken down by sector. Add them together and, hey presto, we deliver our 78% cut.
All of the CCC’s proposals are deliverable but highly ambitious: tens of millions of heat pumps and electric vehicles; a zero carbon power sector, with five times more offshore wind than we have today; large areas of land covered with trees and biocrops; and whole new energy sectors such as zero carbon hydrogen.
But the key point is they need to be delivered together. This is a zero-sum game: under-delivery in one area requires over-delivery elsewhere.
Take the example of carbon capture and storage (CCS). The Committee’s scenario has 53 million tonnes of carbon emissions captured and stored per year in 2035. That’s equivalent to almost all the emissions from our electricity generation today, and from a standing start – meaning there’s a large amount of risk attached.
So any sensible strategy would assume we might miss the target – let’s assume by 20%. If that’s the case, we need to look elsewhere to make up the savings.
How about increasing our ambition on heating? Well, the CCC say that we already need around 12 million homes on low carbon heating by 2035 – up from a few hundred thousand now, and right at the limits of deliverability. But compensating for a 20% shortfall in CCS could mean increasing that target by an extra 3 million. To put it another way, the original target required us to decarbonise half the homes in England – making up for under-delivery is equivalent to putting London on top.
That sounds hard – so how about transport? The CCC say we need around 25 million battery electric vehicles on the road by 2035, equivalent to 75% of the number of cars currently on the road. That’s already a huge challenge when we sell around 2 million new cars per year. Compensating for a 20% CCS shortfall in transport would mean an extra 4 million electric vehicles on top.
The need for a credible plan
So what does that mean for the government’s approach? It is required under the Climate Change Act to set out its plans to meet the new target, and has committed to do so in a Net Zero Strategy this autumn.
That strategy needs to set a clear, measurable pathway on where the required savings will come from; the technology deployment and behavioural changes that will deliver them; the policies which will make it happen; and how shortfalls in one area will be managed elsewhere. For example, the government said in its press release that the CCC’s recommendations on diet change should not be assumed – so it will need to be clear where else those savings will be made.
Doing that requires real commitment, policy clarity, and tough choices. These targets are achievable, but they require massive private sector investment. That will only come if the government is demonstrably willing to take the action required to meet them. An ambitious target may feel painless, but the stakes couldn’t be higher.
 Assumed 6th carbon budget (2030-35) level for 80% 2050 target