The U.K. Should Accept the ‘Net Zero’ Challenge

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The U.K. has been a leader in the fight against climate change, reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by more than 40 percent from 1990 levels. Now the government’s Committee on Climate Change wants to set a far higher goal: net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

Although short of what climate activists in London have lately been demanding, this target is still ambitious and at least theoretically hittable. If the U.K. can be realistic about what it will take to succeed, it might forge a path for all developed countries to help avoid devastating climate change.

The question — as always when countries or states set emissions targets — is whether the political will is strong enough to undertake drastic changes in behavior and technology.

To be sure, the U.K. is not on track to meet even the lower target it had set earlier: an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. Yet there’s reason to think that leaders might better understand the urgency now. The Labour Party, the Scottish National Party and the Welsh Assembly have all declared a climate emergency. And Michael Gove, the governing Conservative Party’s environment secretary, has used similar language.

All sides will also need to agree on a slew of changes. Carbon capture and storage (trapping and burying emissions), for one, will be “a necessity not an option,” the report says. Although this technology is still in development, more than 40 large-scale CCS projects are underway around the world, none of which are in the U.K.

The report outlines many more needed efforts: Farms will have to place more emphasis on biomass production and carbon sequestration (not yet a surefire strategy), thousands of hectares will need to be reforested, and city buildings will need to be retrofitted for low-carbon heating, using heat pumps and hydrogen. Gasoline and diesel cars will have to be phased out well before current 2040 deadline.

Even with all of that, the committee says the target cannot be met without persuading individuals to change their lifestyles — for example, by eating less meat, keeping air travel in check, and dialing down the thermostat in winter. The recent climate protests indicate there is considerable public support, but even so, persuading the British people to transform their habits will require a gargantuan public relations campaign.

The whole effort will take money, of course — an estimated 1 to 2 percent of GDP.

And it will take leadership. The government’s initial response to the committee’s recommendation — yes, but not yet — was not encouraging. Perhaps Prime Minister Theresa May is distracted by the Brexit standoff. If so, she is well advised to open her eyes to the bigger, more consequential crisis of climate change.

The challenge isn’t for Britain alone. If countries do no more than comply with the emissions pledges they’ve made under the Paris agreement, global warming of about 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century can be expected, an intolerable increase. If, on the other hand, most countries adopt and adhere to a net-zero emissions policy, the chances of limiting the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees would be better than even.

Britain, the country that launched the industrial revolution, has already demonstrated that it’s possible to lower emissions without hindering economic growth. It has admirably reduced coal’s share of power generation to 5 percent last year from 40 percent six years ago, and has just set a new record for burning no coal at all (more than five days). It should continue working to show the world how catastrophic climate change can be averted.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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