The road to net zero

In 2019, the UK government committed to a net zero emissions target by 2050. But where has this goal come from and what does ‘net zero emissions’ really mean?

Net Hero Podcast

Featured Video Play Icon

Net Zero is a pathway we need to be on by 2050. What does that mean?  That means emissions can continue, however overall the effect of what the UK produces is negated to effectively zero, by a mix of cutting back in some sectors, extracting in others and offsetting through planting or carbon sequestration.

So how did we get to this target?


What is net zero?

According to the Committee on Climate Change, the net zero target means the UK must lower emissions by 100% by 2050, which can be done through the use of alternative fuels, or the removal of emissions from the air via carbon capture, storage and other technologies and mechanisms.

This has the effect of keeping emissions levels stable and even reducing them over time, until we could potentially remove more carbon than we produce.

Hence, the ‘net zero’ target. It doesn’t just mean ‘zero’ carbon emissions, but zero when taking into account emission removal for every emission released. Furthermore, the target includes additional greenhouse gases as well as carbon dioxide.

The key here is to find the right percentage that emission levels must be reduced by. The right percentage target will, in theory, prevent global temperatures from rising by more than 2°C, which is considered the threshold for catastrophic climate change.

But why has the target become a 100% net reduction only as of 2019? To fully understand fully, we have to start looking in the 1990s.

1992-1997 – The UN and the Kyoto Protocol

In 1992 the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) met in Rio De Janeiro. There the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was agreed upon, in which signatories committed to stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations

These commitments would be codified in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which was negotiated and signed in Japan during December 1997.

The Kyoto Protocol was a legally binding agreement in which wealthier and more industrialised nations agreed to reduce their emissions by 5.2% according to 1990 levels so as to prevent potentially dangerous climate change from occurring.

It was a landmark event, not just because of the number of signatories, but the fact that six greenhouse gases (referred to as GHGs) were clearly defined, with carbon being one of them. Even today the UK’s 2050 net goal focuses on lowering these same six gases.

Furthermore, since the adoption of the protocol, only one country out of the 192 signatories has left, namely Canada in 2012.

Following this, the UK committed to a Climate Change programme in 1994 under John Major, but the real changes only began to take shape at the turn of the millennium.

2000s in Britain – the long road to net zero begins

Image: Shutterstock

2000 UK Climate Change Programme

It was under Tony Blair’s government that the commitments of the UNFCC and Kyoto Protocol became the impetus for the UK’s 2000 Climate Change Programme.

The programme outlined a wide range of strategies and mechanisms for reducing emissions, including the domestic emissions trading scheme, the establishment of the Carbon Trust and the development of more efficient sources of generation. The overall aim was to highlight long term strategies for cutting emissions beyond immediate short-term policies.

The 2000 programme report went on to say, quite prophetically, that:

“In the longer term, bigger cuts worldwide – perhaps 60% or more – will be needed.”

2000 – The Royal Commission investigates

The same year a Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution investigation firmly stated the need for a wide-ranging climate change policy, commenting that:

“There is a moral imperative to act now. If this generation took no measures to curb rising emissions, it would be condemning our children, grandchildren and generations beyond them to considerable dangers.”

The Commission went on to outline key targets for reducing emissions and advised the government to commit to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by 2050. A further emissions reduction of 80% by the year 2100 was also set.

At the time these were seen as truly radical commitments and a clear sign of the UK’s leadership in the effort to prevent climate change.

UK energy
Image: Shutterstock

2003 – 2004 – The Energy White Paper

Following this, a much-anticipated Energy White Paper was published in 2003. For many, it codified the Blair government’s attitudes towards climate change and energy reform by setting out clear goals and policies beyond the earlier Climate Change Programme.

The White Paper outlined the government’s strategy for an energy transition, in which the UK would make more use of cleaner energy sources and begin to move away from fossil fuels and nuclear power.

To accomplish this the White Paper outlined several core commitments such as increasing the security of supply, the promotion of competitive energy markets and tackling fuel poverty.

The largest commitment, however, was to cut carbon emissions by 60% by 2050.

In short, it proposed to modernise the energy sector while addressing the need to reduce emissions, though it only focused on carbon and not all six GHGs.


Many praised the government’s commitment to the ambitious 60% cut in emissions for its ‘strategic vision’.

There were, however, criticisms. Ian Fells, Emeritus Professor at Newcastle University and special advisor to several Parliamentary Committees, said that the White Paper was ‘wishful thinking’, due its plans on cutting back both coal and nuclear power simultaneously.

Image: Shutterstock

Another criticism was that the White Paper was in not sufficiently ambitious or indeed accurate, as it did not include emissions from aviation and shipping in its projections.

In 2004 a Parliamentary Select Committee concluded that the 60% target was, in fact, meaningless if official aviation growth projections were factored in.

The report stated concluded that:

“If aviation emissions increase on the scale predicted by the DfT, the UK’s 60% carbon emission reduction target…will become meaningless and unachievable. The most we could hope to attain would be about 35%.’

Nevertheless, a 60% cut in emissions remained the official target.

Protest in Lancashire

2005 – Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change

This, however, would soon change. Scientific concerns and activist opposition regarding the 60% target grew over time, coming to a head at the Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change conference in February 2005.

At the conference, more than 200 scientists concluded that the 60% target was indeed too low to prevent a rise of 2°C and therefore not ambitious enough to prevent major climate change.

This news lead to considerable public pressure being placed on politicians to address the issue, though it did little.

Some groups nevertheless proposed alternative policies. Friends of Earth and WWF considered a 60% cut by 2050 to be too low and instead recommended an 80% cut in emissions.

In 2005 Friends of Earth drafted a Climate Change Bill, though due to the 2005 General Election it was unable to make progress.

Overall there was a concern that the government was not sticking to its commitments.

Furthermore, Blair’s comments at a ‘global challenge’ conference in New York demonstrated a scepticism in regards to the Kyoto Protocol. While on stage he commented that ‘no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially’ and that there may never be a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

2006 – The Energy Review

This attitude can be seen in the 2006 Energy Review commissioned by the Blair government.

The review itself answered some of the criticisms of the 2003 White Paper by outlining new policies, such as building nuclear power stations to replace those becoming ‘obsolete’.

The review also concluded that better carbon capture and better incentives for renewables, such as offshore wind and tidal power, should be prioritised so as to promote renewable growth.

Nevertheless, the Review focused largely on energy security and sector modernisation – essentially the same goals as the 2003 White Paper – without nearly as much emphasis on climate change. When taking into account Blair’s comments, it seems that energy reform, instead of lower emissions, became the central goal.

2006 – Transition

Christopher Elwell /

October 2006 – The Stern Review 

Perhaps in response to these issues, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown commissioned a report on the potential economic impacts of climate change.

The report was called the Stern Review after its leader Nicholas Stern, then Chief Economist and Vice President of the World Bank and former professor of economics at the University of Warwick.

The importance of the Stern Review was that it outlined in terms of economic, political and human costs the impact of catastrophic climate change if a rise of 2°C occurred.

Furthermore, the Review compared the costs of climate change mitigation and its potential consequences in the form of GDP.

The report concluded that if action was not taken, the cost of the potential ecological and economic consequences would be the equivalent of losing 5% of GDP, per year, forever. Wider damage estimates put the cost up to 20% of GDP per year.

By contrast, the cost of preventing this via emissions reduction could be limited to around 1% of GDP each year.

Reaction to the Stern Review

The Review’s reception was largely positive amongst the scientific community and political world, though there was a mixed reaction among economists.

Nevertheless, Richard Lambert, then CBI Director General, praised the report for showing that climate change could be averted and not at the expense of growth and investment, provided the UK acted with ‘sufficient speed’.

Professor Neil Adger, of the Tyndall Centre, also made a statement praising the Review;

“The Review shows with clarity and vision how climate change can be tackled head on by governments using clear goals and sustained investment…”

Image: Shutterstock

2007 – A new White Paper

Perhaps not unsurprisingly the Brown government’s 2007 White Paper on Energy indicated that energy reform was urgent.

The White Paper stated that in order to deliver on its energy and climate goals the UK would need to:

  • save energy;
  • develop cleaner energy supplies; and
  • secure reliable energy supplies at prices set in competitive markets.

To commit to this the White Paper included policies such as supplanting current nuclear power stations role in generation, requiring all homes to be zero carbon effectively by 2016 and that carbon reduction measures would be placed upon the largest energy consumers.

Nevertheless, the emphasis was still just on carbon and not the other five greenhouse gases defined at Kyoto.

2008 – The Climate Change Act

Dominic Dudley /

The following year a much larger commitment was made, this time changing the official emissions commitment.

In 2008 the then Climate Secretary Ed Miliband announced that in order to prevent a global rise in temperature, emissions had to fall by 50-60% worldwide.

As a result, the UK had to commit to cutting emissions by 80% by 2050. Furthermore, he stated that the target should apply not just to CO2, but to ‘all six of the Kyoto greenhouse gasses.’

Following a near-unanimous vote from Parliament, the Climate Change Act 2008 passed into law.

The Act made Britain:

“The first country in the world to set legally binding ‘carbon budgets’, aiming to cut UK emissions by 34% by 2020 and at least 80% by 2050 through investment in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies such as renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage.”

Having advised the 80% target, the Committee on Climate Change was officially launched in 2008 and tasked with advising the Secretary of State on the correct percentage target for 2050.

The committee was also tasked with outlining the governments carbon budgets. These budgets were to define the maximum level of CO2 and potentially other greenhouse gases that the UK should emit in each 5-year budget period, beginning with 2008-12.

Reaction to the Act

The Act was almost universally supported by the major political parties, with the main objections coming from the Green Party and Respect, who advised a 90% cut by 2050, and UKIP, who called the 60% target ‘unachievable and unnecessary.’

Furthermore, the Act was supported by the CBI and the Trade Union Congress, who commended its ‘flexibility’ and ‘balance.’

2009 – The Low Carbon Transition

Image: Shutterstock/ELN

The next essential policy was the Low Carbon Transition Plan, which laid out the Brown government’s strategy for decarbonising the UK.

Much in line with the Stern Review’s assessments, technology and innovation were considered an essential part of the decarbonisation process.

The Paper set a target for producing 30% of the UK’s electricity from renewables by 2020 by proving market incentives, in addition to pledging to make homes greener by channelling billions to increase home energy efficiency. It also outlined ‘sector-by-sector’ savings plans to help key industries reduce their emissions.

There was also an emphasis on the need for a low carbon transition in transport through reducing carbon dioxide emissions from new cars across the EU by 40%, supporting the development of new electric cars and sourcing 10% of UK transport energy from sustainable renewable sources by 2020.

It was not, however, a total transformation. In a statement Mr Miliband said:

“The basic message here is: we can’t say no to all of the nuclear or all of the low-carbon fuels…We need nuclear, we need renewables, we need clean coal, we need all of those things if we are going to make that transition to cleaner energy.”

2010 – The Energy Act

The Energy Act 2010 that followed the release of the White Paper nevertheless highlighted the reforms the energy sector needed in order to facilitate the new 80% goal.

The Act’s text makes explicit reference to the use of carbon capture and storage technology, the decarbonisation of electricity generation, changes to the functions of the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority and much more besides.

This was an energy strategy the next government would also pay close attention to and in many ways continue.

The Early 2010s – Coalition and Cameron

2010 was the year in which after more than a decade of Labour Party government, the Cameron-Clegg coalition formed a majority in the House of Commons.

The Conservative and Lib Dem Agreement, that formed the basis for the coalition, highlighted climate change as one of ‘the gravest threats we face’ and devoted a significant portion of the agreement to setting out the government’s priorities.

2011 – The Fourth Carbon Budget

The most important step on the road to net zero for the new government was the CCC’s Fourth Carbon Budget, which set emissions reduction targets for 2023-27.

The budget advised that greenhouse gas emissions be slashed to 80% by 2050 and that a target of 60% should be met by 2030 to limit the risks of dangerous climate change.

All of this could be delivered at a cost of less than 1% of UK GDP.

Furthermore the budget and its 2030 goal was backed by the Climate Change Select Committee, the Confederation of British Industry 9CBI), the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Scottish Government, E3G, WWF and the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, in addition to more than 100 additional organisations.

Image: Shutterstock

Nevertheless, there were some criticisms.

The Renewable Energy Association’s chief executive Gaynor Hartnell, for example, praised the report but pointed out what she felt were some glaring omissions in its lack of reference to solar power and grid parity.

Furthermore some activists groups regarded the 60% by 2030 target to be ‘too weak’.

2011 – Energy Market Reform: a ‘Herculean task’

Regardless, the UK Government, in accordance with the need to reduce emissions and costs, committed to a series of reforms (known collectively as the Electricity Market Reform, or EMR) in order to ‘transform the UK’s electricity system’.

Then Minister Chris Huhne argued that the reforms proposed for Britain’s electricity markets were essential, due to three key requirements:

  1. Increased electricity demand due to an increase in electric vehicle ownership and home heating,
  2. ¼ of UK generation was to be replaced within ten years,
  3. That this replacement cycle of £110 billion of investment must be low carbon and renewable.

The proposals received bi-partisan support, including from Shadow Energy Secretary Meg Hillier.

These concerns show that the need for reforming the energy market had by 2011 merged with the need to reduce CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions. Plus it made commercial sense.

This can be seen in the fact that in 2012 50 firms, including M&S, Asda, MITIE, Aviva, Sky and EDF, demanded from the Chancellor a 2030 carbon target, citing that ‘huge commercial opportunities’ could be missed if no target was set.

Several policies and mechanisms were proposed in the 2013 Energy Act to help in this effort. These included the creation of the Capacity Market (CM) to help ensure security of electricity supply at lower prices for the consumer and Contracts for Difference (CfD) to support low carbon electricity generation.

Reaction to the EMR

Michael Pollitt, Professor of Political Business at Cambridge University. Image: ELN

The EMR was largely viewed as a wide-ranging improvement to the energy sector in light of both decarbonisation and modernisation.

Michael Pollitt, Professor of Political Business at Cambridge University, commented that it was a significant step in ‘decarbonising the energy sector’.

The WWF welcomed the EMR’s simplification and clarity, but did criticise the government’s lack of a ‘long-term vision.’

There was also a concern that despite these policies, the government was not fully committed to its emissions pledges.

This perception was not helped when the UK environment secretary, Owen Paterson, said at the Conservative party conference in 2013 that:

“People get very emotional about this subject [climate change] and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries.”

Nevertheless, the reforms passed into UK law.

2015 – Paris Climate Conference

The next big step towards net zero was the Paris Climate Agreement. The aims of the conference and subsequent agreement were to hold the increase in global temperatures to well below 2°C, to encourage ‘climate resilience’ and ensuring finance flowed ‘consistent’ with a pathway towards lowering emissions.

The Paris Agreement can be considered a sort of spiritual successor to the Kyoto Protocol, though there are several key differences.

  1. The Paris Agreement is legally binding, whereas the Kyoto Protocol is not.
  2. Under the Kyoto Agreement developing countries were not mandated to reduce their emissions. All signatories of the Paris Agreement are.
  3. The Kyoto Agreement expires in 2020.

In light of these differences, it is important to note that the Paris Agreement is the first comprehensive climate agreement of its kind.

Reactions to the Paris Climate Agreement

According to the now Lord Stern, he was pleased and surprised with what was his eleventh COP.

He highlighted that mass public support for the Agreement played an essential part, in addition to that fact that a low carbon route would be ‘enormously attractive’ due its emphasis on innovation and investment.

International reaction to the agreement was also largely positive from world leaders, many of whom viewed it as a momentous achievement.

There have, however, been substantial criticisms of the agreement.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) temperatures are likely to rise to 3.2°C this century, even when considering the current climate commitments of the Paris Agreement.

There has also been a political reaction to the agreement on the basis that it could increase fuel prices, threaten energy independence or suppress non-low carbon industries such as coal. Furthermore, there is the view that man-made climate change does not exist and so the policy is itself pointless.

As a result of these factors and more, in 2017 US President Donald Trump committed to taking the USA out of the Paris Agreement and has begun the process for doing so in 2019.

Image: Ilya B. Mirman/Shutterstock

2019 – The commitment to net zero

Then, in June 2019, the CCC released a report concerning a 100% reduction in emissions target by 2050 – a net zero commitment. According to the Chairman and Conservative peer Lord Deben, the net zero target was and is ‘necessary, feasible and cost-effective.’

In response to the CCC’s advice, then Prime Minister Theresa May announced on 12 June 2019 that the UK’s contribution to climate change would end by 2050.

The statement went onto say that:

“This legislation will mean that the UK is on track to become the first G7 country to legislate for net zero emissions, with other major economies expected to follow suit. But it is imperative that other major economies follow suit.”

Reactions to the new 2050 target

The CBI was one among many organisations that endorsed the advice from the CCC. Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI Director-General said:

“UK business stands squarely behind the government’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. This legislation is the right response.”

Nevertheless, as a result of the ambitious nature of the target, many have been sceptical of whether a 100% reduction is feasible and also what ‘net zero’ actually means in its implementation.

Then Chancellor Philip Hammond, for example, predicted that the cost to achieve net zero would be in the region of £1 trillion. For comparison, the UK’s GDP is estimated to have been £2.11 trillion in 2018.

N10 has dismissed this however, replying that plans to create a net zero carbon economy would cost no more than the UK’s existing plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This stems from the CCC’s assurances that the economic costs have been considered, stating that the necessary changes are within the costs Parliament accepted when it legislated for an 80% target by 2050.

The Incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson has continued this effort regarding net zero emissions, making note of it several times during his campaign and as Prime Minister. He has reiterated the government’s commitment to the target at Conservative Party Conference and in the proposed creation of a new government department to work towards the goal.

Nevertheless, there have been criticisms raised regarding the government’s implementation.

Lord Deben of the CCC remarked that:

“If the Government is going to fulfil its party manifesto, it has to get on with it at once.”

In addition, the latest study from the CCC claims that the UK government is lagging significantly behind on its net zero emissions target for 2050.

The Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn has also criticised both Theresa May and Boris Johnson in regard to their net zero commitments. Corbyn has criticised the 2050 target as being too late to stop the effects of climate change and prefers an earlier target for achieving net zero, though not necessarily by 2030.

The activist group Extinction Rebellion has also criticised the commitment, proposing that a net zero goal of 2025 should be adopted in order to prevent ‘civilisational collapse’.

Despite these concerns, it is important to note that 2019 was the year climate change became a central part of not just political discussion but world discussion, through international protest movements, commitments by major firms to sustainability and the role of activists such as Greta Thunberg.

By September 2019, 66 governments had all committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The UK’s role as the first country to make the commitment cannot be underestimated.

December 2019 – The Queen’s Speech

In December 2019 the Queen’s Speech was made to Parliament. In the speech, the Queen outlined the Johnson government’s plans to meet the 2050 net zero greenhouse gas emissions target and to tackle climate change. If the government sticks to these targets, then there is the possibility that net zero will be reached by 2050.

Nevertheless, as the UK begins its withdrawal from the EU, new policies may develop. In addition, recent controversy has developed regarding UK Export Finance’s overseas fossil fuel projects, which have been criticised by Greenpeace for emitting ’69m tonnes of emissions.’

What is clear, however, is that the road to net zero has remained largely steady since the 1990s, through the 2000s and into the 2010s.

These pledges and policies aid with the modernisation of the energy sector, galvanise scientific enquiry, increase interest in sustainable investment and provide a pretext for wide-ranging changes that can help reduce costs, drive innovation and grow the economy.

When one considers this, in addition to the potential consequences of climate change that these policies could help avert, it is clear why these policies are overwhelmingly popular. Furthermore, when the government reneges on these policies, the former often converge and press the government to stick to its commitments.

Overall it appears that net zero is a net win for policymakers.

This report reflects the opinions of the author and not future Net Zero or its affiliated partners.