Hydrogen and carbon dioxide valves sit inside a main generator hall at a power station in Selby, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

U.K. Poised to Back Net Zero Greenhouse Gas Target for 2050

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. government is preparing to announce plans to slash fossil fuel emissions to zero by 2050, an effort to fight climate change that would change the way Britons heat their homes and the cars they drive, officials familiar with the situation said.

An announcement embracing the so-called net zero emissions target is likely in the next two months, according to the officials, who declined to be named discussing plans that haven’t yet been finalized.

Such a radical move would amount to the most stringent curbs on greenhouse gases adopted by any major economy. The goal was recommended by the government’s own climate change adviser last week. The Committee on Climate Change said Britons need to fly less, drive electric cars, eat little meat and turn their home thermostats down to 19 degrees Celsius (66 Fahrenheit).

The Business Department, which has responsibility for climate change, said in a statement that "we are carefully considering the report and its recommendations and will respond as soon as possible.” Business Secretary Greg Clark last week spelled out an ambition to be "the first major economy to legislate to end our contribution to global warming entirely."

“It is the start of a new phase to eradicate our contribution to global warming once and for all,” Clark said in a speech May 2. “As we consider how we reach net zero, we must listen to – and be guided by – the science.”

One of the officials said that Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond is on board with the plan, but the unknown factor is whether Transport Secretary Chris Grayling will buy into it. The official also said that adoption of the target would have implications for an energy white paper planned for July. The paper is being produced with existing climate goals in mind, but civil servants have been asked to look at the implications of a net zero target. Changing the target is therefore unlikely to delay the white paper, they said.

With other European nations already pushing for such a target at the EU level, the window may be short for the U.K. to claim the title of first mover. Earlier this week, eight EU governments -- France, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden -- urged the EU to embrace a net zero target for 2050.

The U.K. is trying to show that despite Brexit, it won’t back away from EU standards on the environment. Clark said the country leads internationally in fighting climate change, and Britain has offered to host next year’s annual United Nations climate conference.

Achievable Goal

Britain already has a target to cut greenhouse gases by 80 percent by 2050, but the last fifth is likely to be the hardest reduction to make. Nevertheless, with the main opposition Labour and Scottish National parties calling for tougher curbs, any plans by Prime Minister Theresa May to do so are likely to be supported in Parliament.

In its conclusions last week, the Committee on Climate Change said its recommendation was achievable "with known technologies alongside improvements in people’s lives." It also said it’s feasible "within the economic cost that Parliament originally accepted" when passing its landmark Climate Change Act in 2008. A net zero goal would allow Britain to keep emitting some greenhouse gases, so long as other measures are taken to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, such as planting trees.

The push comes at a time when climate change has been a prominent issue in the U.K., even as the country grapples with its plans to leave the European Union. Climate protesters from the activist group Extinction Rebellion disrupted London’s streets for two weeks last month with protesters targeting Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and the London Stock Exchange. Then, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg met with political leaders in London.

Thunberg extracted a promise from Environment Secretary Michael Gove that he would push for stronger action on climate change, as well as an admission that the government has not done enough. On May 1, the U.K. House of Commons declared a "climate emergency" following a debate called by the opposition Labour Party.

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