7th November 2020 | Commercial Energy

Britain is not known for great acts of dirigiste planning, but when it comes to tackling climate change it has – to remarkably little fanfare amid the noisy political dramas of the last few years – set out strikingly ambitious climate goals and a route map to achieving them. Margaret Thatcher’s self-appointed mission, in the late 1980’s, to put the nascent issue of climate change at the top of the global agenda, is today regarded as a major part of her legacy by some historians and environmentalists. By the same token – in the spirit of crystal-ball-gazing – it’s possible to speculate that Theresa May’s much briefer and more unhappy period in government will be remembered for its revolutionary commitment to making the UK a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050.

Carbon neutral

A few weeks before May stepped down in the summer of 2019, the UK became the first major economy to pass legislation binding itself to achieving net-zero carbon (and other greenhouse gas) emissions by mid-century. We did this in the form of a statutory amendment to the Climate Change Act 2008, acting on the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change (a government advisory panel of climatologists and economists chaired by the ex-Tory environment minister John Gummer, now Lord Deben). At the time, plenty scoffed that the move was pointless and even self-harming without a similar commitment by other nations. But since, then, many others have followed – first the EU and more recently South Korea and Japan. China has said it can follow by 2060.

That depends on two things. First, whether a wholesale shift away from fossil fuels is possible in the country that spawned the industrial revolution and was once the world’s largest consumer of coal. And second, whether the nascent technologies of carbon capture, utilisation and storage can develop sufficiently rapidly to offset ongoing emissions.

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