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UK pledges to speed up cut in carbon emissions

Prime Minister brings forward the target for reducing carbon emissions by 15 years

Mark Moran
20 April 2021
The government has launched a campaign, Together For Our Planet, calling on businesses, civil society groups, schools and the British public to take action on climate change.
The government has launched a campaign, Together For Our Planet, calling on businesses, civil society groups, schools and the British public to take action on climate change.


The UK government is to set in law an ambitious climate change target that seeks to cut emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. The Prime Minister’s commitments bring forward the current target for reducing carbon emissions by 15 years.

Hitting the target will require the widespread take-up of electric cars, people will be encouraged to drive less and walk and cycle more. Homes will need to be much better insulated, use low-carbon heating and renewable electricity. In the agriculture and food sector, there would need to be a reduction in on meat and dairy. For the first time, climate law will be extended to cover international aviation and shipping. Aviation would become more expensive for frequent fliers.

The announcement is in line with sixth Carbon Budget, which was presented last December by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the independent advisory committee set up under the act. The sixth Carbon Budget limits the volume of greenhouse gases emitted over a 5-year period from 2033 to 2037, taking the UK more than three-quarters of the way to reaching net zero by 2050.

The government says the Carbon Budget will ensure Britain remains on track to end its contribution to climate change while remaining consistent with the Paris Agreement temperature goal to limit global warming to well below 2°C and pursue efforts towards 1.5°C.

For the first time, this Carbon Budget will incorporate the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions – an important part of the government’s decarbonisation efforts that will allow for these emissions to be accounted for consistently.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We want to continue to raise the bar on tackling climate change, and that’s why we’re setting the most ambitious target to cut emissions in the world. The UK will be home to pioneering businesses, new technologies and green innovation as we make progress to net zero emissions, laying the foundations for decades of economic growth in a way that creates thousands of jobs.

“We want to see world leaders follow our lead and match our ambition in the run up to the crucial climate summit COP26, as we will only build back greener and protect our planet if we come together to take action.”

The announcement comes ahead of Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the opening session of the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, hosted by US President Biden on Earth Day (22 April). The Prime Minister will urge countries to raise ambition on tackling climate change and join the UK in setting stretching targets for reducing emissions by 2030 to align with net zero.

The government says it is already working towards its commitment to reduce emissions in 2030 by at least 68% compared to 1990 levels through the UK’s latest Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which it claims the highest reduction target made by a major economy to date. The sixth Carbon Budget is designed to achieve a 78% reduction by 2035.

The new target will become enshrined in law by the end of June 2021, with legislation setting out the UK government’s commitments will be laid in Parliament on 21 April.

Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “The UK is leading the world in tackling climate change and today’s announcement means our low carbon future is now in sight. The targets we’ve set ourselves in the sixth Carbon Budget will see us go further and faster than any other major economy to achieve a completely carbon neutral future.

“This latest target shows the world that the UK is serious about protecting the health of our planet, while also seizing the new economic opportunities it will bring and capitalising on green technologies – yet another step as we build back greener from the pandemic and we lead the world towards a cleaner, more prosperous future for this generation and those to come.

“The UK over-achieved against its first and second Carbon Budgets and is on track to outperform the third Carbon Budget which ends in 2022. This is due to significant cuts in greenhouse gases across the economy and industry, with the UK bringing emissions down 44% overall between 1990 and 2019, and two-thirds in the power sector. Moreover, the UK continues to break records in renewable electricity generation, which has more than quadrupled since 2010 while low carbon electricity overall now gives us over 50% of our total generation.”

Prior to setting its net zero commitment in law, the UK had a target of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050. Through the sixth Carbon Budget announcement, the government is aiming to achieve almost the same level 15 years earlier.

The government said it will look to meet its reduction target through investing and capitalising on new green technologies and innovation, whilst maintaining people’s freedom of choice, including on their diet. This is given as the reason why the sixth Carbon Budget of 78% is based on its own analysis and does not follow each of the Climate Change Committee’s specific policy recommendations.

Via its presidency of the UN climate summit, COP26, which will take place in Glasgow later this year, the UK will encourage countries and companies around the world to join it in delivering net zero globally by the middle of the century and set ambitious targets for cutting emissions by 2030.

COP26 President-Designate Alok Sharma, said: “This hugely positive step forward for the UK sets a gold standard for ambitious Paris-aligned action that I urge others to keep pace with ahead of COP26 in Glasgow later this year. We must collectively keep 1.5 degrees of warming in reach and the next decade is the most critical period for us to change the perilous course we are currently on.

“Long-term targets must be backed up with credible delivery plans and setting this net zero focused sixth Carbon Budget builds on the world leading legal framework in our Climate Change Act. If we are to tackle the climate crisis and safeguard lives, livelihoods and nature for future generations, others must follow the UK’s example.”

Ahead of COP26, the government launched the Together For Our Planet campaign, which calls on businesses, civil society groups, schools and the British public to take action on climate change. This UK-wide initiative contributed to the government securing pledges from a third of the UK’s largest businesses to eliminate their contribution to climate change by 2050.

The Prime Minister’s 10 Point Plan for a “green industrial revolution” and the government’s Energy White Paper are being proposed as ways of supporting the UK’s trajectory towards meeting the new sixth Carbon Budget.

The UK government is also developing a series of strategies that it says will support polluting industries to decarbonise while still growing the economy and creating new, long-term green jobs. The Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy envisions cutting emissions by two-thirds in just 15 years. The government has also promised £1bn to cut emissions from industry, schools and hospitals.

The UK has agreed a North Sea Transition Deal to support the oil and gas industry’s transition to green energy while supporting 40,000 jobs. Through the deal, the sector has committed to cut emissions by 50% by 2030. The government said it plans to work the sector and trade unions to deliver the skills, innovation and new infrastructure required to decarbonise North Sea production.

The government is planning to bring forward "blueprints" setting out its own vision for transitioning to a net zero economy. These plans will set out how the government can support the public in transitioning to low carbon technologies, including publishing the Heating and Building Strategy and Transport Decarbonisation Plan later this Spring.

The cross-government Net Zero Strategy will also be published ahead of COP26, with business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng currently commissioning work across Whitehall to help inform work across key sectors of the economy.

The government says its analysis finds that costs of action on climate change are outweighed by significant benefits accruing from reducing polluting emissions, as well as bringing fuel savings, improvements to air quality and enhancing biodiversity. The government expects the costs of meeting net zero to continue to fall as green technology advances, industries decarbonise and private sector investment grows.

HM Treasury will publish its Net Zero Review in the coming months.

International commitments

Following recommendations of the government’s statutory climate advisors, the Climate Change Committee, carbon dioxide emissions in the UK are to be cut by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels.

The UK already had an Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), stipulating 68% cuts by 2030, but by setting out a further target for 2035 the prime minister will fulfil the legal obligations set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act. Under the act, governments must set five-year carbon budgets stretching beyond the term of the current parliament.

NDCs are national climate plans highlighting climate actions, including climate related targets, policies and measures governments aims to implement in response to climate change and as a contribution to global climate action. Central to the NDCs is the concept of national determination.

President Biden is expected to set out the US’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) in the context of a virtual climate summit of 40 world leaders that he is hosting.

China is expected to publish an NDC soon. Japan, South Korea and Canada are set to revise their NDCs.


The government’s announcement was welcomed by Lord Deben, chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, the independent advisory committee that published sixth Carbon Budget.

“The UK’s sixth Carbon Budget is the product of the most comprehensive examination ever undertaken of the path to a fully decarbonised economy,” said Lord Deben. “I am delighted that the government has accepted my Committee’s recommendations in full.”

The Labour Party said the government had to match “rhetoric with reality”, accusing the government of setting targets without creating policies needed to deliver them. Ed Miliband, shadow business secretary, said: “The character of this government on climate change is now clear: targets without delivery. So while any strengthening of our targets is the right thing to do, the government can’t be trusted to match rhetoric with reality. Ministers have failed to bring forward an ambitious green recovery. We need a government that treats the climate emergency as the emergency it is.”

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: "The most glaring problem [with the plan] is the government's failure to address what's driving the climate crisis: an outdated and exploitative economic system that treats our planet and natural world as peripheral to our lives and, worse, expendable. The Prime Minister needs to accompany stronger climate targets with an economic reset to put the health and well-being of people and planet above short-term profit and growth.”

There was support from the business sector. Rain Newton-Smith, CBI chief economist, said: “Setting the sixth Carbon Budget in line with the Climate Change Committee recommendations puts the UK on a credible path to achieve its net zero emissions target. As COP26 hosts, the UK government is leading by example by setting this stretching target. Business stands ready to deliver with the latest low-carbon technologies and innovations that are driving emissions down every year. By tackling this together, we can reap the benefits of transition to a low-carbon economy. The target emphasises the importance of the 2020s as a decade of delivery on our climate ambitions, and urgent action is needed now to make this a reality.”

Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, an alliance of leaders from business, politics and civil society that drives action for a sustainable economy said: “The government should be commended for adopting the ambitious and evidence-based recommendations from the Climate Change Committee for the sixth Carbon Budget. The emission cuts set out in the Budget represent essential next steps the UK needs to take to ensure a credible, cost-effective, and timely pathway to net zero emissions by 2050. The inclusion of the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions is a particularly welcome addition and will help to accelerate the development of sector-specific decarbonisation plans.”

Environmentalists welcomed the government's decision to revise its Carbon Budget. Shaun Spiers, executive director of the Green Alliance, said: “By accepting the Climate Change Committee’s recommendations for the sixth Carbon Budget, the government has sent out a resounding message, domestically and internationally, that the UK is taking its net zero emissions target seriously. The inclusion of international aviation and shipping is particularly important, showing climate leadership in the year we are hosting the Glasgow climate summit. What we need now is to ensure there is no gap between ambition and policy, so the UK has the right tools in its armoury to meet these targets.”

Ed Matthew, campaigns director for the climate change think-tank E3G said: “Setting an ambitious emission reduction target would boost the UK’s diplomatic drive to persuade other countries to set out ambitious targets of their own. That is one of the big tests of UK climate diplomacy ahead of the COP26 climate summit. The UK now has the opportunity to spark a global green industrial revolution but ultimately its credibility will rest on action. It must now put in place the policies and investment needed to achieve the target. That is the mark of true climate leadership.”

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