Net zero targets
We evaluate the net zero target as: “Acceptable”.
The UK has enshrined the net zero target by 2050 in law by way of revising and amending the Climate Change Act 2008 in 2019. The Net Zero Strategy released in October 2021 has been submitted to the UNFCCC as the UK’s updated long-term strategy.
The net zero target covers most key elements considered important by the CAT to enhance transparency, target architecture, and scope. The UK meets good practice for most of these benchmarks, but some elements remain undefined or lacking. For example, a clear commitment not to use reductions or removals outside of the UK and a delineation of separate targets for emissions reductions and removals would improve the target architecture of the UK’s net zero target.
The UK was the first major economy to establish and pass a legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050 in 2019 (UK Government 2019d). The UK’s target covers all sectors and gases, including emissions from international aviation and shipping. The net zero target’s key strength is its periodic carbon budgets and associated intermediate targets: by means of five-year statutory carbon budgets, a clear timeline is provided that will facilitate the tracking of progress towards net zero.
CAT analysis of net zero target
Ten key elements
- Target year – The UK aims to reach net zero GHG emissions by 2050.
- Emissions coverage – The target covers all GHG emissions and all sectors of the economy (UK Government 2021b).
- International aviation and shipping –The Climate Change Act itself does not yet specify whether emissions from international aviation and shipping are included in the new 2050 target. However, the sixth carbon budget will count emissions from international aviation and shipping towards the UK’s emissions (UK Government 2021d). As the 2050 target will be achieved via carbon budgets, the inclusion of aviation and shipping in the sixth carbon budget suggests that the 2050 target will also account for international aviation and shipping.
- Reductions or removals outside of own borders – When introducing the net zero target in 2019, the Prime Minister’s office announced that the UK “will retain the ability to use international carbon credits […] to maximise the value of each pound spent on climate change mitigation” (UK Government 2019b). However, around the same time, the then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy specifically stated, in an answer given to a question in parliament, that the government did not intend to use international credits to achieve its net zero target (UK Government 2019a). Given the contradicting nature of official statements relating to this indicator, an “average” rating has been assigned to the UK. However, this would be changed to positive upon an official commitment to rule out the use of international permits to achieve the net zero target, which was not present in the Net Zero Strategy (UK Government 2021b) or the updated CBDP (DESNZ 2023a).
- Legal status – The UK’s 2050 target was enshrined in law in 2019 (UK Government 2019d). The intermediate emissions targets, in the form of carbon budgets are also legislated for and legally binding. The UK has also submitted its Net Zero Strategy to the UNFCCC as a long-term strategy (UK Government 2021b).
- Separate reduction & removal targets – The UK’s Net Zero Strategy includes several scenarios with varying levels of negative emissions in 2050 (UK Government 2021b) , but does not set specific emissions reduction and removal targets.
- Review process – The UK has a legally binding process in place to review progress on achieving the net zero target (House of Commons Public Accounts Committee 2021). The Secretary of State is obliged to provide an annual statement on UK emissions trends, as well as a statement on whether each successive carbon budget has been met. There is also a provision that allows for the amendment of the 2050 target if there have been significant developments in scientific knowledge about climate change or in international law or policy.
- Carbon dioxide removal – In the Net Zero Strategy, the UK government has outlined the ranges of removals expected in 2050 from both bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS). The Government aims to remove 75–81 MtCO2 by 2050 by these methods, which is more than suggested by the CCC (UK Government 2021b, CCC 2020). Updated estimates of 2050 carbon dioxide removal levels were not provided in the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan, which considers only the period out to 2037.
While transparent communication is to be welcomed, the UK’s target therefore displays a considerable reliance on removals, which could pose a delivery risk, due to the uncertainty around the technical feasibility of engineered CO2 removal (Grant et al 2021a). The Net Zero strategy does consider how CO2 storage potential could constrain carbon dioxide removal via BECCS and DACCS. This could represent a short-term constraint on CO2 removal in the 2030s (UK Government 2021b). The Government is working to develop CO2 storage infrastructure, including by developing a business model to incentivise the transport and storage of CO2.
- Comprehensive planning – The UK’s Net Zero Strategy from October 2021 provides a range of sector-specific pathways that achieve net zero by 2050 (UK Government 2021b). The Climate Change Act’s legally binding carbon budgets provide a clear timeline that will help track progress towards net zero. In this way, the UK has some of the key elements of good practice in the area of comprehensive planning to reach net zero.
The updated Carbon Budget Delivery Plan sets a new standard in transparency around the government’s plans to reduce emissions in line with net zero (DESNZ 2023a). This improved transparency, while welcome, has highlighted a large number of critical policy gaps in the UK’s pathway towards net zero. With only 20% of the necessary emissions reductions covered by credible policy, the UK’s current approach cannot be deemed credible, unless further action is taken (CCC 2023a).
- Clarity on fairness of target – The CCC’s advice includes an assessment of the implications of different equity principles. The report concludes that the UK would have to do more than the world as a whole for it to be considered ambitious and aligned fair share principles (CCC 2020). The report goes on to explain how the gap between their realistic net zero target and what would be a fair target could be addressed. However, the Climate Change Act itself does not reference fairness nor equity in the context of its net zero target, neither does the Net Zero Strategy itself.
The Climate Action Tracker has defined the following good practice for all ten key elements of net zero targets. Countries can refer to this good practice to design or enhance their net zero targets.