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Britain Becomes First Major Country to Commit to Legally Binding Zero Emissions Target

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The UN’s Global Goals include Goal 13 for climate action. Experts say there’s just over 11 years left to limit the damage caused by the increase in global temperatures — and that means governments must take radical action to curb their emissions of greenhouse gases. Join our movement by taking environmental action here.

Britain will become the first major economy in the world to legislate for a zero carbon emissions target on Wednesday, creating a legally binding commitment to be entirely “net zero” by 2050.

It’s a bold step that shows how the UK government is taking the climate crisis seriously. However, although campaigners have generally praised the move, many have criticised loopholes, and insisted that the target doesn’t come soon enough.

No other country in the G7 has yet enshrined such a policy in law.

Theresa May, the UK’s departing prime minister, will cement the target into law Wednesday with an amendment to the Climate Change Act, which had initially set out the 2050 target to reduce carbon emissions by 80% when it first passed over a decade ago. The change will not require a vote from MPs.

The announcement comes just days after 10 Downing Street rebuked claims from Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer, that such a target would cost over £1 trillion and inevitably lead to spending cuts for the NHS, education, and policing. 

But Chris Skudmore, the acting energy minister, said it would likely cost 1% to 2% of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a number unchanged from the initial target set in 2008.

"Now is the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children,” May said. “We must lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth."

The Guardian commented that the move is an attempt for May to salvage some domestic legacy on climate change. Global Citizen has previously reported that her record on what could be the definitive issue of our time is antithetical and “messy.”

The net zero target effectively means that Britain will eventually contribute nothing to global warming. In just over 30 years, the country must not put any more carbon into the atmosphere — for example through greenhouse gases created when fossil fuels are burned — than it removes from it. 

Ways carbon could be removed from the atmosphere include the planting of more trees, radical rewilding — returning large swathes of the UK to its natural environment, while protecting bog and marches — or with emerging technologies that literally sucks carbon dioxide from the air and turns it into liquid.

In reality, the target means a long-term plan to overhaul the way Britain functions across transport, housing, agriculture, energy, and more. 

According to the Guardian, the bare minimum would demand quadrupling clean energy productions; planting 1.5 billion more trees; cutting beef, lamb, and dairy consumption by 20%; and banning petrol and diesel cars at the very least five years sooner than the current government commitment.

However, there’s a loophole.

The UK’s official Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommended that the government set the 2050 net zero target. But it also insisted that it must be achieved without something called “carbon credits.” 

“It is essential that the commitment is comprehensive, achieved without use of international credits and covering international aviation and shipping,” the report read

Basically, when a country purchases carbon credits, it’s buying itself leeway on the volume of carbon it’s legally allowed to emit at the expense of another country. So if Britain were to trade in carbon credits with a country like Zambia, it would mean that while the UK is permitted to emit more, Zambia must emit an equal amount less.

For rich countries like Britain, carbon credits could be a “Get Out of Jail Free” card if it fails to meet its emissions targets. But it might mean poorer countries are held hostage by wealthier economies.

Read More: British People Are More Worried About the Environment Than Ever Before

So although Greenpeace UK has described the target as a “giant leap forward”, it has urged the government to take the CCC’s advice on board and close the carbon credit loophole.

“As the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, it is right that the UK is the world’s first major economy to commit to completely end its contribution to climate change,” said Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK. “But trying to shift the burden to developing nations through international carbon credits undermines that commitment.”

“This type of offsetting has a history of failure and is not, according to the government’s climate advisers, cost-efficient,” he added.

The CCC report also confirmed that even if other countries followed the UK by setting a zero emissions target, there was still just a 50/50 chance that the planet would remain below the recommended temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. Anything above that guarantees a shift in climate that will threaten human life.