Blue-sky ambition as UK government enshrines net-zero commitment in law

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On 12 June legislation was set forth in Parliament committing the UK to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, making it the first G7 member to enshrine such a commitment in law.

The announcement followed a report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published in May, and an earlier announcement by Scotland to reach net zero by 2045. Britain’s existing target had been to cut GHG emissions by 80% by 2050, but the CCC report deemed this target inadequate to meet the pledges set out by the 2015 Paris agreement, to limit global warming to 1.5ºC.

PwC’s climate change adviser Lit Ping Low said the announcement was “not a surprise” but it was “a big deal that will drive the behaviours and tech innovations needed to meet the ambitious target.”

She said the net-zero direction of travel had already been apparent from the CCC report, and various signals the government had been sending. “But signals are not the same as commitment,” she said. Nevertheless, she suggested, the new target “gives businesses clarity that low carbon targets must be an essential part of business strategy and decisions.”

“The target is ambitious but it needs to be to incentivise behaviour – meeting it is dependent on decisions and technology developments, now and in the coming years, to help reduce emissions.” She pointed to recent PwC research with Microsoft which appeared to show that greater adoption of AI across even a few sectors could reduce global GHG emissions by as much as 4 percent.

Chris Pritchett, a lawyer who has been advising the Energy Data Taskforce, believed open data would be a crucial ingredient in making the necessary changes to the energy system. “System data is often currently a closely-guarded secret, carefully protected by government bodies, industry and privacy laws.

“But if data is shared in a way which makes sense, the opportunities for efficiencies and innovations are enormous. That only happens if we can move towards something more optimistic and future-facing.

“As an example, electric vehicles will generate vast pools of data. In the near future your car will need to interact with your smart home, your smart technology and the local and National Grid.

Despite the ambition, many commentators pointed to holes in the government’s sustainability plans, such as its decision to press on with a planned expansion at Heathrow.  Chancellor Philip Hammond later declared the net zero carbon target to be a £1 trillion commitment, which could only be paid for via spending cuts to public services.