Natural gas: carbon capture and storage systems are still costly and rare, as are replacements for gas in home heating systems, such as hydrogen or electric heat pumps © Dreamstime

In three decades, Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions should fall to almost zero, according to the UK’s chief advisory body on climate change. In a rigorous report, the Committee on Climate Change proposes Britain adopts the strictest targets for emissions among G20 countries, alongside France. The Net Zero report should be applauded as a blueprint which does not shy away from addressing the costs of transition. The government should seize the opportunity to put Britain on the right path on climate change.

The report lays out a clear moral case for the UK reaching net zero by 2050 — meaning any greenhouse gases it does emit must be absorbed through forests or carbon-capturing technology. Despite accounting for 1 per cent of emissions today, the legacy of the industrial revolution means Britain has long been one of the top five cumulative contributors to climate change. The UK is well placed to demonstrate how other countries can reach net zero thanks to its strong technology sector. The report also discusses benefits from lower emissions, such as healthier citizens, lower energy prices, greater biodiversity and new jobs in the renewable energy sector.

At the same time, the report does not downplay the difficulties. Carbon capture and storage systems, which will be central to ensuring that the UK’s continued emissions are balanced, are still costly and rare. So too are replacements for gas in home heating systems, such as hydrogen or electric heat pumps. Cutting consumption of beef, lamb and dairy by 20 per cent and returning farmland to forests will disrupt farmers. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels will disproportionately impact northern England and Scotland.

The report is right that the government should make a concerted, cross-departmental effort to ensure this is a “just transition”. This will include having the Treasury review how changes can be funded to avoid penalising certain regions or sectors. The report asks businesses and communities to make big shifts to how they live and work. The government should ensure the effects are properly mitigated, or it risks facing a gilets jaunes-style insurrection.

There are many specific questions left unanswered. There is no firm recommendation on the future of fracking, the process by which shale gas is unlocked using high-powered jets of water. The UK’s regulations on the industry have left it largely moribund, with the commissioner in charge resigning last week. Similarly, the acrimonious debate around the third runway at Heathrow airport goes unresolved. The report does, however, call for individuals to minimise long-haul flights and use trains in place of short-haul journeys.

These do not detract from the monumental work behind this report. The Committee on Climate Change has offered the government an opportunity to set a path for the UK as a global pioneer. Although the 2050 deadline will require sustained government focus, it is by no means unworkable. It is a lot more credible than Extinction Rebellion’s proposed 2025 cut-off.

While the bulk of the work will be carried out under future administrations, adopting the report’s recommendations is a key first step. The UK has cut emissions significantly from 30 years ago. A decision now could set the path for future administrations to eliminate them 30 years from now.

This will require political courage to commit wholeheartedly to net zero. Here is an opportunity for a rudderless government, looking to chart a new path for Britain in the world post-Brexit, to write a place in history.

Letters in response to this editorial comment:

Climate committee’s ‘net zero’ report is founded on optimism / From Deri Hughes, London, UK

Low-carbon economy is a growth opportunity for Britain / From Nick Molho, London, UK

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