Could Britain really cut carbon emissions by 2030?

The target, which Labour is considering, would need a rapid move to renewable energy, electric vehicles and low-meat diets

Harry Cockburn
Thursday 13 June 2019 21:51 BST
Greta Thunberg says climate change message is 'clearly not getting through' in speech to MPs

Labour has responded to Theresa May‘s pledge to make Britain carbon neutral by 2050 by floating an even more ambitious target – no greenhouse gas emissions at all in 11 years’ time.

But is this 2030 deadline, which John McDonnell says is being given “serious thought”, feasible?

At the moment the UK is not even on track to meet existing 2025 and 2030 goals for emissions reductions – targets that don’t even take into account the enormous contributions of international aviation and shipping.

Britain has recently been accused by an environmental NGO of breaching the terms of the Paris climate agreement due to its “creative accounting”, as teenage green activist Greta Thunberg put it.

Reaching net zero means eventually emitting less greenhouse gas – in particular carbon dioxide – than is being absorbed, and there are two methods to ensure success. These are: emitting far less, and absorbing much more.

To emit significantly less CO2 requires fundamental changes in how we live our lives and function as a society.

Some key contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in Britain include energy generation, transport and infrastructure, residential and commercial buildings, farming and food, and international travel and trade.

Within every one of these areas, a transformation in priorities, expectations and habits will be essential if the changes are to have any impact. Already the government has cold feet about what this entails.

All coal, oil and gas must be entirely phased out. Solar and wind power must take their place. Gas hobs and boilers in houses and commercial premises must rapidly be replaced with electric versions connected to a national grid running on renewable energy.

The current government is backing fracking, subsidising fossil fuels and meanwhile has cut investments and support for the renewable energy sector.

Petrol and diesel-fuelled vehicles must be entirely phased out and replaced with electric vehicles. Considerable investment is required for a national rollout of charging points to encourage the transition.

The government currently only has a target for phasing out fossil fuel-powered vehicles by 2040 and has slashed support to help uptake of electric vehicles.

Far greater numbers of people will need to work from home, while a radical uptake in numbers walking or cycling to work will also be needed. Government support for investment in cycling has a poor track record outside the capital – and even there it is relatively tiny.

Buildings will also need to have a far smaller emissions footprint. Improved insulation so they require less power to keep warm is vital, but will require significant funding from central government. Curbing the use of concrete in the construction of new buildings – an enormous source of carbon dioxide – is also essential.

Use of farmland is another considerable obstacle. To meet the demands of net zero emissions requires the population of the UK to quickly move from a high meat diet to a low meat diet, freeing up land for other uses such as reforestation. This switch could see a 35 per cent reduction in emissions from this sector – but can eating habits alter so much in 10 years?

And flying must be discouraged, with airport expansion, such as the planned third runway at Heathrow, cancelled.

These are a handful of the necessary measures rapidly needed if the UK is to have any chance of meeting the 2050 target, let alone one 20 years sooner.

On top of these, there must also be a colossal effort to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The most efficient method known is to plant trees.

According to Friends of the Earth, we need to double current tree cover in the UK. Large tracts of farmland must be reforested, and peat bogs protected and restored to draw down and store carbon dioxide.

If the Labour Party does adopt a 2030 target for net zero, it will likely resonate with a sizeable chunk of the population, not least young people increasingly concerned the world they are inheriting has been unscrupulously abused.

This was demonstrated by the unprecedented support for the Extinction Rebellion and school strike for climate protests this year.

But Labour must be clear about what net zero entails: will they be using the same “creative accounting” used by the Tories?

In setting its latest targets, the government did not accept the Committee on Climate Change’s advice that the net zero target for 2050 should be met solely by cutting emissions in the UK, and not by also buying carbon offsets from abroad. Will Labour use the same means of offloading our responsibilities?

All of these measures to put the UK on the path to zero emissions are achievable, and could be implemented rapidly. They would enhance our environment, improve our health and safeguard our wildlife – the results would be extraordinary.

But these huge changes in every area of life also require an extraordinary level of political will – is it really there?

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