The Committee has recommended that the UK government take the lead in reaching net-zero, through social, financial, and policy change.

By Paul A. Davies and Michael D. Green

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), a statutory body that advises the UK government on carbon budgets, has recommended that the UK government should commit to cutting greenhouse gases (GHGs) to net-zero by 2050 in an attempt to meet its commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement. The Financial Times described the proposed goal as the “toughest binding target of any big economy.”[i] To meet this ambitious net-zero target, the UK government would need to employ technologies such as carbon capture, utilization, and storage to curtail the volume of GHGs entering the atmosphere. Chris Stark, chief executive of the CCC, remarked that the UK’s bid to reach net-zero will be a “powerful signal to other countries”[ii] to take action.

Recommendations to meet net-zero

The UK government’s current target is an 80% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050. While an 80% reduction is compatible with the Paris Agreement target of limiting the average global temperature increase to under 2°C, the reduction is incompatible with the 1.5°C target under the Paris Agreement (and which would require more ambitious measures). As such, the CCC’s latest recommendation is to reduce GHGs to net-zero by 2050. The UK government is currently considering adopting this target. Thus, though the UK Net-Zero Advisory Group to the CCC confirms that the UK’s net-zero goal is “achievable,” the onus is on the UK government to take immediate action.

The CCC has made the following recommendations, through its scenario-building and modelling, to help the UK achieve the net-zero target by 2050:

  • Using low-carbon electricity
  • Boosting efficient buildings and low-carbon heating
  • Increasing use of electric vehicles
  • Growing carbon capture and storage and low-carbon hydrogen
  • Stopping waste going to landfill
  • Phasing out certain fluorinated gases
  • Decreasing farm emissions

However, whether the UK government wishes to pursue the required policy reforms remains unclear. Fundamental changes in policy, leadership, promotion of GHG emissions monitoring and information distribution would be necessary to galvanize an economy-wide platform built on the foundations of the Climate Change Act 2008. The government and HM Treasury would need to be heavily involved to transform policy and to ensure net-zero becomes an economic policy goal, with GHG monitoring given the same status as economic monitoring and related financial goals.

The CCC recommends that every domestic option that can help meet net-zero should be fully explored to establish multiple transition pathways and implementation flexibility. The CCC is seeking significant action from the UK government in the next five years, including: fundamental policy reforms; afforestation, agroforestry and land management; trial, demonstration and evaluation of key technical and social innovations; prioritization of public funding; biofuels; and the advancement of hybrid-electric aircraft.

Notably, UK policy director at the Confederation of British Industry Lobby Group, Matthew Fell, supports the net-zero strategy, but calls for “certainty” from the UK government. Fell states, “the longer we delay, the harder it’s going to be.”[iii]

Additional observations

The CCC also highlights the importance of social change in achieving the UK’s 2050 target, for example the increasing trend towards vegetarian, vegan, and flexitarian diets. The CCC is working on an assumption that there will be a 20% reduction in the consumption of lamb, beef, and dairy by 2050, which will help in achieving net-zero.

The UK could receive an “industrial boost” by leading the way in low-carbon products and services (electric vehicles, finance, engineering, carbon capture, hydrogen technology). Though transitioning to a low-carbon economy will have many potential returns for investors, the transition cannot be achieved solely through the use of sustainable finance. As Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, noted in his A New Horizon speech at the European Commission Conference on a global approach to sustainable finance, “the transition will require mobilizing mainstream finance.”

With respect to constituent countries, Scotland likely has the highest chance of achieving net-zero by 2045 — in comparison to the UK as a whole. Conversely, Wales likely will have the lowest chance of success, with a target of 95% reduction by 2050 (largely due to its large sheep-farming industry).

Moving towards net-zero

In recent years, climate change has moved steadily up the political agenda, and achieving the net-zero target will require a unified, cross-party approach and political will. The transition could provide an opportunity for technological innovation and advancement with global application, helping to further the UK’s standing as a climate change advocate and technological pioneer. Such political engagement and collaboration would be necessary to effect an essential step-change in lifestyle, policy, energy generation, and finance.

Whether the UK government will amend the Climate Change Act 2008 to account for the net-zero target remains to be seen.

Latham & Watkins will continue to follow and report on developments in this area.

This post was prepared with the assistance of Martin Cassidy in the London office of Latham & Watkins.


[i] Financial Times, UK government advisers to recommend net zero emissions by 2050, April 29, 2019

[ii] Committee on Climate Change, Chris Stark: Towards Net Zero, March 19, 2019

[iii] Financial Times, UK government advisers to recommend net zero emissions by 2050, April 29, 2019