climate change politics

Britain will go zero carbon by 2050

There were rumours flying around yesterday, and today the news is out: Theresa May is bringing in a net zero climate target for 2050. It’s a moment worth noting – the government has taken the advice of its climate scientists, which doesn’t happen very often. It will mean that Britain, having kick-started the industrial revolution with coal power all those decades ago, will end its contribution to climate change.

It also puts Britain in a small but growing number of countries committed to zero carbon – not as fast as some, but by some distance the largest economy on the list. Others will follow, but I’m proud that Britain will be among the first to adopt a zero carbon target.

Of course, setting a target is easy. Meeting it is not, and we weren’t on track for our existing target of an 80% cut by 2050. We need to raise our game considerably. So far, the Conservative government has moved decisively in the wrong direction on almost everything – binning zero carbon homes, blocking wind power and canning plans to electrify railway lines.

Or take solar power. With a nine month gap between the end of the feed in tariff and the start of the new market-based scheme, the solar industry has no business model and is being annihilated as we speak. At a time when solar is one of the world’s most dynamic growth industries, Britain is apparently the only country in the world with falling rates of solar installation. I don’t know whether this is staggering ineptitute or a deliberate crushing of renewable energy, but either way it doesn’t bode well for our climate targets. It feels to me like we will be starting the race standing in a hole.

It also comes with a get-out clause: “the UK will conduct a further assessment within 5 years to confirm that other countries are taking similarly ambitious action.” The law writes in the opportunity to remove the target if other countries aren’t doing enough, which is very open to interpretation for any future government that finds it inconvenient. It’s also worth noting that the target is being framed entirely as ‘green growth’, and announcements have come with the hashtag #industrialstrategy. What chance of action on areas where we have to say no to growth, such as aviation or fracking?

Hopefully, the new target will give policymakers a new incentive to think creatively and raise their ambitions. Things that were politically difficult become more feasible.

That’s where the rest of us have a role to play. If campaigners and voters support the target, politicians will see that it’s popular and start to factor the climate into their thinking. And we’ll need that can-do spirit and a sense of momentum, because 2050 is actually too slow, and should be considered a starter for ten.

Despite all these hesitations, let’s not miss the fact that Britain just set a zero carbon target. That’s a remarkable turn of events, pretty much inconceivable just a couple of months ago. Let’s take it, let’s use it, and let’s pursue that more hopeful future.


  1. Do you think that May did this because she is on the way out? Instead of playing politics she is finally dealing with reality?
    Politicians do stupid things all the time to keep their jobs instead of serving the public.

    1. Almost certainly, and I wrote that in my first draft and then took it out again as I didn’t want to sound cynical! It’s hard to avoid the fact that she is leaving office with almost nothing achieved, and this would be a good way to make a difference before she goes.

      Whether it’s realism, I don’t know. It would be nice to think so, but this is the Prime Minister that scrapped the Department of Energy and Climate Change on her first week in office. She’s hardly mentioned climate change until now, so it’s not been a personal priority for her in any way. But if it gives her something to hold onto as a legacy of some sort, I won’t begrudge her that.

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