climate change

How ambitious is a net zero carbon Britain by 2050?

Last year the British government asked its climate advisors to look into a new target to be net zero carbon by 2050. They’re still deciding (and weakening the intermediate targets while they wait), but the Chancellor has described the idea as “one of the most ambitious long-term carbon targets in the world”.

That’s debateable Mr Hammond.

If all goes to plan, the race for the first carbon neutral countries will go like this:

If Britain goes carbon neutral by 2050, we’ll be a quarter of a century behind Ethiopia, which doesn’t make it sound very ambitious at all.

Now, it’s not quite that simple. Some countries have huge forests and thus a massive headstart, or very small populations. Some plan to buy offsets on an epic scale. National climate targets are subject to reversals – the Maldives were on that list once and I don’t know where they are now. New Zealand at one point were saying 2025 and don’t any more.

Equally, that list is likely to grow soon. France is debating draft legislation for 2050 at the moment, so is Portugal, and in fact the whole EU may get there before Britain if we don’t hurry up. Scotland is also going one better and setting a target for 2045. Mexico, Colombia and Canada are all committed to carbon neutrality but haven’t set a date yet. Some will come in at 2050, others lower. Oh, and National Geographic thinks Bhutan is carbon positive already.

In other words, net zero by 2050 isn’t one of the most ambitious climate goals in the world. It’s actually likely to be fairly normal for a European country, or it certainly should be. As the Climate Change Committee have pointed out, 2050 is basically the least we can do to remain within the science. Anything less than that would be failing our international commitments.

Obviously I’d like to see quicker decarbonisation, though I can’t get my head around Extinction Rebellion’s 2025 target as anything other than a provocation to raise the bar. Can we stretch to 2040? 2035? Perhaps 2050 is as early as our current government can imagine, but can we at least stop telling ourselves that it’s ambitious?


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