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Theresa May’s ‘net zero’, explained. WTF is it, and will it be any good?

Posted by Rebecca Newsom - 12th June 2019


Today, outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May has committed the UK to a legally-binding ‘net zero’ emissions target by 2050.

If you’re anything like me you’d have heard the news and thought – huh? is this good? Then you low-key googled “what is net zero” before anyone noticed.

If you thought or did any of those things, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s unpack the jargon and figure out what May’s ‘net zero’ plan is, and find out if it’s enough to get us out of the climate emergency…

So what does ‘net zero by 2050’ actually mean?

Essentially ‘net zero’ means that by 2050, the amount of greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide) the UK adds to the atmosphere is no longer more than what they take out. This could – on the face of it – make the UK’s total contribution to climate change zero.

In practice it means that in the years leading up to 2050 (aka now), businesses and companies should have to take steps to reduce the amount of carbon we emit by doing away with using fossil fuels and switching to clean technologies like renewables. And any carbon we continue to put out into the atmosphere should be counterbalanced by doing good things for the environment (which takes the emissions out again).

The counterbalances can be things like planting more trees, improving soils and protecting forests within the UK. This is because healthy forests and trees literally absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Yay Trees.

All-in-all, net zero – done right – could be a really good thing.

So how does May’s policy stack up?    

This has the potential to be a really big deal. The UK is, on the face of it, the first major economy committing to completely end its contribution to global climate change by 2050. However, there are some concerning loopholes that mean the Government could try to wriggle out of responsibility. These need to be closed urgently, and we need a comprehensive action plan for transforming our whole economy, for this to have the true impact we need.

There are four main areas where Government has currently stopped short of the radical action required. We need reassurances and extra commitments from Theresa May and her Ministers to address these problems.

  1. International offsets – the door has been kept open to using international carbon credits as a way to meet the ‘net zero’ target. This means that industries like aviation or shipping could be given a free pass to carry on as usual, in exchange for paying for things like tree-planting abroad. This is morally unacceptable because it shifts the burden to developing nations and shirks the UK’s full responsibility for the climate emergency. It is also very unlikely to actually work: this type of offsetting has a history of failure. The Government’s own climate advisors said it’s a more expensive option than innovating in new technologies to sustainably transform our UK industries. The Government needs to confirm immediately that they will rule out international offsets.
  2. The date – Greenpeace has been calling for a ‘net zero’ target significantly sooner than 2045. International climate scientists have made clear that the whole world needs to reach net zero emissions by 2050 to avoid more than 1.5 degrees of global warming. As the birthplace of the industrial revolution, and one of the world’s most advanced economies, the UK clearly needs to move much faster than most other countries – to set an example and take responsibility. The Government should review and bring forward the 2050 date as soon as possible once this new legislation has been passed.
  3. 5 year review – The Government have said that they will review the ‘net zero’ target within 5 years to check that other countries are following suit. However, this misses the point that a) the whole world has no choice but to ultimately eliminate emissions – or face catastrophic climate change; and b) there is an economic opportunity for the UK to move ahead of most other countries and secure a competitive advantage in new low carbon sectors (e.g. offshore wind). Rather than leaving the door open to potentially dilute this target, the Government should use a 5-year review to make it stronger.
  4. Action plan on the ground – ‘Net zero’ will only mean something if policies and money are committed to deliver it. Frankly, it’s going to take a momentous amount of vision and  working together to eliminate our carbon footprint. And there are some really big companies out there – ahem BP – that love their fossil fuels.

Some of the things we expect to see (and will push for) are:

  • Government investment in our electricity, transport and heating systems to help bring them into the 21st century.
  • Policies to help climate proof our homes, factories and offices to make them warm in winter and cool in the summer – BONUS that means cutting carbon and our bills!  
  • Ban new roads and runways for flying.
  • Taking bold measures to protect, nurture and enhance our land and oceans so they can absorb greenhouse gases and allow a wide range of plants and animals to thrive…

…..and these are just a few things on the list – in practice there are a lot more (you can check out our climate action plan here)! The Government needs to step up and close the funding and policy gap immediately.

So what’s the bottom line?

Overall, if I were to describe May’s ‘net zero’ plan in a few emojis, I’d say: 👷‍♀️🚧 . Aka under construction.

Basically, this is an important step in the right direction, but it needs to be seriously tightened up, and we need a strong action plan – backed up by government investment – to make it translate into change on the ground.

The fact Theresa May has even decided to make the announcement today is a credit to all the amazing activists in the environment movement, who ramped up the pressure in recent months. It has forced the UK to send a message on the global stage that we all now need to do more to tackle the climate crisis.

As long as we keep the pressure on, there’s a good chance this moment could trigger an entire change in how the government not only thinks – but also ACTS – to address the climate emergency in future months. So let’s keep pushing!

What’s next

Now that the wheels are in motion, it is our job as constituents to hold our government to account and push them on the things that need improvement.

If you’ve only got 1 minute: We know we can go further, faster and action must start today! We’ve laid out a plan for the government. Help pile on the pressure and make sure we get real climate action to address the climate emergency. Add your name: https://act.gp/2IEoMls

If you have more time:  Join the movement wide mass lobby on June 26th where you can speak to your MP directly about the problems in the current ‘net zero’ plan and how they can help close the gaps: https://greenwire.greenpeace.org/uk/en-gb/events/time-now-mass-lobby-environment-bill

OR Volunteers across the UK are emailing, writing, meeting and tweeting their representatives; helping to keep important environmental issues on the political agenda. If this is the kind of thing you’re interested in then we’d love to have you a part of our volunteer-led political lobbying network. The next training day is coming up in Bristol soon and you’re more than welcome. Sign up here: act.gp/lobby