New long term targets for emissions reduction are needed.

The UK and other jurisdictions need to set target dates for reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions.  These need to be reinforced by new targets for 2060 that are at least close to zero, and by reaffirmed or strengthened targets for 2050.

Ten years ago setting emissions reduction targets for 2050 was a major step forward

2018 sees the tenth anniversary of the UK’s Climate Change Act[i].  This remarkable piece of legislation established a legally binding obligation for the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, with obligations along the way in the form of five year carbon budgets.  So far progress has been remarkably good, though significant challenges remain.

Other jurisdictions also adopted 2050 targets at around the same time.  In 2005 California also set a target of an 80% reduction from 1990 levels[ii].  In October 2009 the EU established a long term EU goal for reducing emissions by 80-95% from 1990 levels by 2050[iii].

At the time these targets were path breaking.  However, ten years on there are good reasons for reviewing and extending them.

But now the world has moved on …

  • When the targets were established, the period to 2050 seemed long enough to give appropriate strategic guidance to policy makers and investors. However, future dates are now ten years closer.  A 2060 target now gives about the same time horizon for planning as the 2050 targets did when they were established.
  • The Paris Agreement sets targets to limit temperature rises which imply stringent limits on cumulative emissions. It also sets a goal of net zero global emissions in the second half of the century.
  • A fifth or more of the world’s carbon budget that remained in 2008 has since been used up[iv], increasing the urgency of emissions reductions.

Extending targets to reflect these changes would have some clear benefits … 

Together these changes imply a strong case for setting new targets now.

The most compelling target would be a date by which emissions must fall to net zero.  Such a target would make it clear to all sectors that they need to completely decarbonise by a specified date.  At the moment emissions of up to 20% of 1990 levels are allowed even in 2050.  This allows each of those sectors where decarbonisation is more difficult – for example parts of industry, agriculture or residential heating – to largely continue in a belief that there will still be plenty of room for them within the 2050 emissions limit, even though this cannot be true for most sectors.  This in turn allows them to continue to believe they can carry on indefinitely without taking the steps needed to decarbonise.  A date for reaching zero makes it clear this can’t happen.

Setting stringent target for 2060 – at or close to zero – would also give investors in low carbon infrastructure greater confidence, and deter investment in higher carbon alternatives. In the case of the UK and California, a simple extrapolation of their current targets would suggest a 2060 target of a 93% reduction from 1990 by 2050, reaching zero by 2065.

As part of the process of setting these longer term goals the existing 2050 targets need to be at least reaffirmed and preferably tightened.  If this is not done there is the risk that policy makers will simply see the problem as having become more distant, and delay action.  This is the last thing that the climate needs.

2050 targets may also need to be revised …

As a first step, the EU’s target of 80-95% cuts clearly needs to be made more precise.  The current uncertainty of a factor of four in the level of emissions allowed in 2050 is too wide for sensible policy planning.

However the events of the last ten years also raise the question of whether the stringency of the 2050 targets need to be increased, with implications for later periods.  The UK Government’s former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King and others have suggested that there is a strong case for the UK seeking to reach net zero emissions by 2050[v].  The difference in cumulative emissions in declining linearly to net zero by 2050 instead of by 2065 is substantial, at a little over 3 billion tonnes – equivalent to about 8 years of current UK emissions.

The goal of reaching zero emissions by 2050 is clearly desirable in many ways.  However there is a risk that it may have unwanted side effects.  The government’s advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change has pointed out that policies are not in yet place even to meet current goals for the fifth carbon budget in around 2030[1].  The route to net zero emissions in 2050 – just over 30 years from now – looks even less clear.  Indeed reaching that goal even by 2065 remains challenging.  If even tighter targets are introduced they may come to be regarded as unrealistic, which may in turn risk weakening commitment to them.  A somewhat slower emissions reduction track may prove a relatively acceptable price to pay for retaining the credibility and integrity of the targets.

Whatever the judgement on this, the need for longer term targets is clear.  Governments need to set dates for reaching net zero emissions.  These need to be supported by targets for 2060 that specify continued rapid reductions in emissions after 2050, and by reaffirmation of 2050 targets, tightening them as necessary.  These new targets will in turn help stimulate the additional actions to rapidly reduce emissions that are ever more urgently needed.

Adam Whitmore – 6th November 2017





[iii] measures_data/docs/pressdata/en/ec/110889.pdf

[iv] The calculation is based on data in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Synthesis Report.  This quotes a  cumulative budget of 3700 billion tonnes of CO2 for a two thirds probability of staying below 2 degrees.  Of this 1800 billion tonnes had been used by 2011.  Assuming CO2 emissions of roughly 40 billion tonnes p.a. including land use gives a remaining budget in 2008 of 1920 billion tonnes.  Over the subsequent ten years about 400 million tonnes CO2, which is just over a fifth of 1920 billion tonnes, have been emitted.


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