climate change politics

How to use a 2050 target

This week I’ve been writing about Britain’s climate targets, and whether or not we should adopt a 2050 date to be carbon neutral. It’s a live debate in British politics, and we’ve waited quite some time for such a thing. Apparently Theresa May would like to bring it in as a closing achievement during her premiership, if she is not swayed by fear-mongering over the costs.

Once she is replaced, there’s no knowing who we’ll get instead. Some candidates for the Conservative leadership – and therefore the job of Prime Minister – say they support a 2050 target. Others are part of networks with a history of climate denial, and the issue will not be high on their agenda. So this is an important moment. There is a chance that a Conservative government will commit Britain to being carbon neutral, but that moment may soon pass.

So what to make of that 2050 target? Many campaigners, myself included, argue that 2050 falls short of the emergency action we’ve been calling for. Do we support Theresa May right now and get 2050 passed, knowing it doesn’t go far enough? Or do we keep demanding more urgent timetables, at the risk of getting nothing?

I think it’s important to take the political moment and consider it a step in the right direction. Britain is currently committed to an 80% cut in emissions. We’re not on track to meet those, and a zero carbon target will force more definitive policymaking.

There’s no reason to stop there, either. We can consider 2050 a starting point and ratchet up from there. Come the next general election, other political parties will want to bring it forward and put 2040 in their manifestos. If there is demand in the streets – and there is – parties will compete over it for votes.

The national target is not the final word either. Regions, businesses, cities and projects will set their own. Scotland has already shown this. The scientific advice is that they have certain advantages and can achieve neutrality by 2045. The Scottish government rarely passes up an opportunity to best Westminster, and called it immediately.

Scotland’s two biggest cities are in on it too. Glasgow wants to be the first carbon neutral city in the country. They’ll be desperate to beat Edinburgh, which has set 2030, and that inter-city rivalry might be healthy for once in this context. “It is our hope that this declaration kick starts a race to zero with other ambitious cities,” as the CEO of Scottish Power said at the Glasgow announcement. “Then we will all be winners. The prize is the future of our country and our planet.”

Similarly, London has its own targets, and faces competition from other English cities such as Manchester, which aims to be carbon neutral by 2038. This can happen with supermarkets, football teams, car companies, energy suppliers, and businesses of all kinds. If campaigners, customers and citizens keep pushing, 2050 will start to look lazy.

So let’s support 2050 right now. But let’s not consider the case closed.

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