The Race To Zero We Must Win
By Ed Matthew, COP 26 Co-Director, The Climate Coalition
Five years ago, world leaders gathered in Paris for COP21 and made a landmark promise to restrict global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees C and to do everything they can to limit heating to 1.5 degrees C. This commitment is at the heart of the Paris Agreement.
On 12th December, the fifth anniversary of that landmark event, the UK Government will host an international Ambition Summit on climate change, where it hopes world leaders will step forward to announce major new pledges to slash their emissions of greenhouse gases.
To help galvanise the most ambitious pledges possible, the UK Government will soon unveil its renewed target for cutting emissions by 2030, as part of its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC); an obligation under the Paris Agreement. Collectively NDCs help to determine whether the world is on track to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C.
News broke this week that, according to analysis by Climate Action Tracker, the world is on course for 2.1C of global heating rather than the 3C to 4C previously estimated. This takes into account recent pledges by China, South Korea and Japan to go net-zero and the promise by US President-Elect Biden to join them.
This is incredibly positive news but it comes with some major caveats. A global temperature rise of 2.1C would still bring devastating impacts, and these net-zero targets are meaningless unless robust early action is taken to slash emissions in the next 10 years. To get on track to 1.5C, the UN’s body of climate scientists (the IPCC) estimates that global carbon emissions need to be cut almost in half by 2030. So the NDC targets for 2030 really matter.
Civil society organisations have called on the Prime Minister to ensure the UK NDC is in line with that 1.5C target. But what level of cuts would that require of the UK?
The UK has so far reduced its territorial emissions by 45% since 1990. It already has a legally binding carbon budget which covers the period 2028 to 2032 and was set under the old target enshrined in the Climate Change Act to reduce UK emissions by 80% by 2050. This 5th Carbon Budget requires a cut in emissions by 2030 of 61% according to the Climate Change Committee.
The Climate Coalition is calling for the UK to show leadership by going even further and reducing its emissions by 75%. And here is why.
Firstly, the UK has now updated the Climate Change Act, increasing its 2050 target from 80% to net-zero emissions. So purely on a legal basis, we need to go faster in the 2020s if we are to meet this target.
Secondly, a higher level of cuts is technically feasible. Recent research by the Imperial College London finds that on a feasibility basis alone, UK emissions could be cut by 72% by 2030. This is based on existing technologies and a conservative estimate of costs. There is every reason to believe that as technologies develop and costs reduce, this level of cuts could be increased yet further. This is also a huge economic opportunity. The faster we move, the faster we will build the green, zero carbon industries of the future, that will be critical to our economic recovery.
Thirdly, the UK is the seventh biggest emitter of greenhouse gases from a historic perspective. It has a clear moral duty to reduce emissions as fast as it possibly can and support others to do so. The poorest countries in the world have done the least to cause climate change but they are the ones who are likely to suffer the most.
Fourthly, it is a question of global leadership. The greater the level of ambition by the UK, the greater the impact this will have internationally. As host of the critical COP 26 climate summit in November 2021, the UK must lead the world in ambition and action.
Fifthly, we are in a climate crisis that is already impacting the people, places and life we love. Even a global temperature rise of 1.5 degreesC is not safe, and will result in far greater levels of damage than we’ve already seen in recent years. The impacts of this climate crisis could almost completely wipe out some ecosystems and lead to millions of deaths. The UK’s 2050 net-zero target is simply not ambitious enough. As one of the most advanced economies in the world, with the highest rate of emissions reductions of any countries in the G20, we must get to net-zero much sooner than 2050.
A UK NDC target of 75% may stretch beyond what seems feasible today. But we must be guided by what is needed to keep us as safe as possible, not by political expediency or technical limitations.
We can be inspired by the words of President Kennedy when he announced the mission to go to the moon:
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
The UK’s greatest power on climate change is as a leader, inspiring other countries to act with maximum ambition. The race to zero is a race for survival and it is one we must win.