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 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, 2019c). 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
- 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, 2021d).
- 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, and they will be formally included under section 30 of the Climate Change Act (Explanatory Memorandum to the Carbon Budget Order 2021, 2021). The UK Government has also indicated that this will be legislated upon recommendation from the Committee on Climate Change (UK Government, 2019a). Given the government’s official commitment to include these emissions in its sixth carbon budget and confirmation in the Net Zero Strategy that they are included, we have given the UK an “advanced” rating for this indicator.
- Reductions or removals outside of own borders – As per the text of the Climate Change Act, the UK reserves the right to use of international offset credits to meet its net zero target. In 2019, the Prime Minister’s office announced with the release of the new Climate Change Act legislation 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, a “poor” rating has been assigned as of October 2021. 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 is not present in the Net Zero Strategy (UK Government, 2021d).
- Legal status – Initially, the UK set an overall emissions reduction of at least 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. This original commitment was replaced with a net zero target for 2050 in 2019 and the UK passed its net zero target in law (UK Government, 2019e). The Sixth Carbon Budget will also reflect the new target. The Net Zero Strategy released in October 2021 has been submitted to the UNFCCC as the UK’s long-term strategy.
- Separate reduction & removal targets – The UK’s Net Zero Strategy includes several scenarios with varying levels of negative emissions in 2050 (UK Government, 2021d), but does not set specific emissions reduction and removal targets. It also does not provide information on its intention to communicate separate 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 – The Climate Change Committee (CCC) report provides transparent assumptions for domestic LULUCF and carbon dioxide removals to 2030, which the UK government has indicated it will comply with. In its Net Zero Strategy release in October 2021, 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) in each of the three scenarios included, though it is not specified how the indicated levels of removals in each scenario are achieved.
- Comprehensive planning – Underlying analysis by the CCC identifies emissions pathways, highlights current policy commitments, and depicts necessary sector-specific key changes for reaching net zero (Committee on Climate Change, 2020b). At the same time, despite the sequential carbon budgets, many of the measures necessary for achieving net zero are not legally enshrined by the UK, and the CCC has identified several existing policy gaps. The UK government has released its Net Zero Strategy in October 2021, which includes three potential scenarios for reaching net zero emissions by 2050 (UK Government, 2021d). Residual emissions in 2050 under these three scenarios are broken down into sectors. 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.
- 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 (Committee on Climate Change, 2020b). 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 or equity in the context of its net zero target, and nor 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.