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Reality Check: Can the new UK climate targets get us to net-zero? © Getty Images

Reality Check: Can the new UK climate targets get us to net-zero?

Published: 12th May, 2021 at 17:00

The UK government aims for a country-wide emissions cut of 78 per cent by 2035, compared to 1990 levels.

The government has announced an “ambitious” new climate target, which will bring the UK more than three-quarters of the way to its goal to reach climate neutrality.


Announced in April, the target aims for a country-wide emissions cut of 78 per cent by 2035, compared to 1990 levels. It will set the UK on track to meet its long-term goal to reach “net-zero” emissions by 2050, which was adopted in 2019.

It also incorporates the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions, a first-time move which will require a “transformation” of these sectors, campaigners say.

“This bold new target places the UK at the forefront of climate pledges and is a significant step up in ambition from just a few years ago,” said Jess Ralston, analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). “With long term and determined policy support there’s no reason why we can’t seize this huge opportunity to slash emissions while growing our green economy.”

The target

The UK’s Climate Change Act requires the government to set legally-binding climate targets every five years. These set the direction of travel for government and business, says Katie White, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF, and allow successive governments to be held to account should they fail to make progress.

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In December, the government’s independent climate advisors recommended a new target to cut emissions by 78 per cent by 2035, including international aviation and shipping. The government has now accepted this advice, with the new target set to become law in late June.

Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), said in a statement he was “delighted” the government had accepted his organisation’s advice. “By implementing our recommendations in full, the government’s decision rests on the most comprehensive ever assessment of the path to a fully decarbonised economy,” he said. “It means that every choice we make from now must be the right one for our climate.”

The new target is also seen as a bid for UK climate leadership ahead of the major COP26 climate summit, set to be hosted in Glasgow this November. Announcing the target, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said the UK wants to “raise the bar” on tackling climate change and see world leaders “follow our lead”.

“[The target] will speed up the rate of emissions reduction over the next decade, which is crucial if we’re to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C,” said Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network. “It will also drive more investment into clean technologies and green infrastructure in the next few years, which will help stimulate the economy and create jobs as we emerge from the COVID pandemic.”

The inclusion of aviation and shipping in the climate target was a particularly significant step, said Cait Hewitt, deputy director of the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF). “We’re the first major economy to include these emissions in our climate law.”

However, the CCC has previously warned that the UK is not on track to meet its two earlier climate targets for 2025 and 2030. Reacting to the news of the 2035 target, Labour MP Ed Miliband, former climate change secretary under Labour and now shadow business secretary, said in a statement that the government “can’t be trusted” to match rhetoric with reality. “The character of this government on climate change is now clear: targets without delivery,” he said.

What’s next?

The challenge for the government now is to set out how it plans to meet these targets and start putting policies into place.

The UK has seen significant reduction in its carbon emissions over the past decade, with emissions 45 per cent below 1990 levels in 2019 and 49 per cent below 1990 levels in 2020, according to government figures.

The majority of these emissions cuts have occurred through the decarbonisation of the electricity system, as coal plants were shut down and renewables steeply expanded. But the new 2035 target will require active changes in other areas which have so far lagged behind on emissions cuts, such as home heating and transport.

Reducing emissions in these sectors may need more proactive decisions from consumers to reduce their carbon footprints, says Ralston. It will also create a huge number of jobs. A recent analysis found some 500,000 new green jobs could be created in England alone by 2030 if it takes the action needed to reach its climate goals.

Meanwhile, the government is expected to publish its aviation net zero consultation before the summer break, said Hewitt. AEF is hoping to see new policies to tackle aviation emissions, such as annual emissions targets for airlines, a review of policy on airport expansions or financial measures such as an air miles tax.


The UK is among a host of countries to set net zero climate targets in recent years, as countries strive to implement the Paris Agreement and show they are taking climate change seriously. With the COP26 conference set to take place in just six months’ time (bar any delay due to COVID), the pressure on the UK to show further leadership to implement its targets is only likely to increase further.

About our expert, Jocelyn Timperley

Jocelyn Timperley is a freelance climate journalist from Scotland who now lives in Costa Rica. She writes about everything from climate and energy policy to community projects and environmental justice. She co-edits the From A Climate Correspondent newsletter, publishing stories about climate change from journalists located around the globe. She has an environmental chemistry background and previously worked at Carbon Brief.


Jocelyn is a freelance climate and science journalist.


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