Net Zero: explained

19 July 2024

One of the issues mentioned in the 2024 general election campaign was whether political parties would stick to the UK’s 2050 ‘Net Zero’ greenhouse gas emissions target, and how they planned to achieve this. 

In the past we’ve seen several claims on the impact of achieving Net Zero, including some from the then Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, when, in autumn 2023, he announced a new approach to achieving the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions targets. 

Mr Sunak said at the time this was a “more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach to achieving Net Zero that eases the burdens on working people”. Others were critical of what they suggested was a “watering down” of the UK’s Net Zero policies. 

But what is Net Zero, and what are the political parties saying about it? This article looks at what we mean by Net Zero, whether the UK is on track to meet its climate targets, and what the parties said about this during the election campaign.

This explainer is one of a series Full Fact is publishing exploring a range of key political topics. We’ll be updating these articles on a regular basis—this article was last updated on 19 July 2024 and the information in it is correct as of then.

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What does ‘Net Zero’ mean?

The concentration of greenhouse gases, gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, methane and others, contributes to global warming. The objective of Net Zero is to reduce the amount of these gases in the atmosphere in order to reduce global warming. 

Reaching Net Zero means achieving a balance between greenhouse gas emissions and the amount of these gases removed from the atmosphere by either natural processes such as photosynthesis, or by other methods of carbon capture and storage, leaving ‘net zero’ in the atmosphere. The UK’s legal target, set in 2019 by Theresa May’s Conservative government, is to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050.

How do you achieve Net Zero?

There are several policies proposed for achieving Net Zero. These include methods for both reducing emissions produced by human activity and increasing the amounts of carbon absorbed from the atmosphere.

Reducing emissions presents a lot of policy choices. About a quarter of the UK’s emissions come from transport, using estimates from 2021, with other key areas including the energy sector (20%), businesses (18%) and households (16%).

Emissions might be reduced by phasing out the use of fossil fuels and increasing the use of renewable sources of energy, such as wind or solar power, for example. 

Carbon emissions from transport can also be reduced by measures including increasing the use of electric vehicles on the roads and further electrification of rail travel. An additional means of reducing emissions is by increasing the efficiency of domestic energy use, such as through improving home insulation and the installation of domestic heat pumps.

The other side to the equation is increasing the amounts of carbon absorbed from the atmosphere. One common method of carbon removal is through planting more trees. Restoring other natural environments, such as peatlands, can also increase the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere.

What is the government obliged to do?

Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the government is required by law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The government is also required to publish carbon budgets every five years setting out caps on emissions. 

In addition, in 2016, the UK signed the Paris Agreement. Signatories to the agreement have pledged to keep the level to which global temperatures are rising to below 2°C and work towards limiting it to 1.5°C.

In 2019, the UK set the current legally binding target to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050. In 2021, Boris Johnson’s government also announced an interim target to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035, compared to 1990 levels.

The new Labour government said in its manifesto that it was committed to achieving the 2050 Net Zero target. The Conservatives also said this, but other parties, including the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, have said they want to achieve Net Zero before 2050. The SNP said it shares the Net Zero ambition for Scotland as well, and legislation gives Scotland a target to achieve this by 2045. 

By contrast, Reform UK has said it would scrap the 2050 target, arguing that trying to achieve it would damage the UK economy.

The government is also obliged under the Climate Change Act to publish plans about how it intends to achieve Net Zero. In 2022, the then Conservative government (under Mr Johnson) lost a case in the High Court and was ordered to update its climate strategy, because it did not include adequate information on how Net Zero would be achieved. Rishi Sunak’s government lost a similar case in May 2024, when the High Court found its plans were not sufficient to meet its obligations under the Climate Change Act.

Is the UK currently on course to achieve Net Zero?

The UK’s carbon emissions have been, for the most part, gradually falling since 1990. But independent monitors of government progress are concerned that the target won’t be met.

In February 2024, Mr Sunak’s government announced the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2022 were 50% lower than they had been in 1990. This is based on the UK’s ‘territorial’ emissions. Territorial emissions are used to track the UK’s progress towards meeting its Net Zero target. They include all the emissions within the UK’s borders but don’t include those produced by UK businesses abroad, and any emissions from international air travel and shipping. 

Some of the most significant progress has been in emissions from coal, which have almost completely disappeared following the closure of coal power stations in recent years.

Despite the reductions that have taken place since 1990, the government’s independent watchdog, the Climate Change Committee, said in its most recent annual report it was not confident the UK was on course to meet its targets for achieving Net Zero. It said there was a “lack of urgency” in the approach of Mr Sunak’s government, and that that government needed to do more to support the transition away from high carbon emitting industries, including fossil fuel production. 

It also said the then government needed to provide households with more advice and support to help them reduce their energy use.

Campaigners including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace UK have also said the UK should do more in order to achieve Net Zero, including increasing the speed of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy and improving energy efficiency.

Critics of the Net Zero target have argued the transition to renewable energy will damage the UK economy and make it less competitive with other countries. 

We haven’t fact checked this argument, and the economic costs and benefits of this transition will be uncertain given the variety of different factors at play. 

The Office for Budget Responsibility does warn that the costs of unmitigated climate change would be much larger than bringing emissions to Net Zero, although it also acknowledges the UK remains a small contributor to global emissions.

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