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How will the government achieve net zero – and why is the policy being criticised?

Net zero plans have come under fire from Conservative MPs – but what is the 2050 target for, how will it be achieved – and why is it causing controversy?

“Net zero” has been on everyone’s lips in recent weeks with the government’s flagship climate policy coming under attack from a Conservative scrutiny group.

The Net Zero Scrutiny Group, made up of a group of Conservative MPs, has linked net zero policies to the current energy crisis, and has criticised the policy for its perceived cost. 

Climate scientists have criticised the group for attempting to derail a policy which they say is essential for halting runaway climate change.

If you’re still confused about the fuss, we’ve pulled together everything you need to know about the net zero target, what it will involve, and why it’s causing so much controversy.

What is net-zero?

As a term, “net zero” simply refers to a scenario in which the level of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere are equal to the amount being removed. 

Net zero is not the same as total decarbonisation, which would entail stopping greenhouse gas emissions altogether.

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Under the government’s plans to reach net zero by 2050, some sectors of the economy such as aviation will continue to produce some greenhouse gases. 

The idea is that residual emissions from these sectors will be removed through natural carbon capture methods such as tree-planting, or through industrial carbon capture technologies.

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Will net zero stop climate change? 

To curb climate change, all countries around the world must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions rapidly.

Failing to do so will lead to rapid heating of the planet and likely ecological collapse.

Scientists and experts around the world have agreed that reaching net zero emission by 2050 is the best chance the planet has of tackling global warming before it’s too late. 

In a landmark 2021 report, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of a “code red” for humanity, saying that today’s global leaders are likely to be the last group of politicians with the ability to hit the net zero target.

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Without action by those in power now, they warned, governments in place by the end of the decade will have run out of time to fix the crisis. 

Thanks to historical greenhouse gas emissions, scientists say that a lot of planetary warming is already “locked in” even if the world does manage to stay within the 1.5C limit agreed at the Conference of Parties (COP) in 2015. 

The IPCC have said this means some changes are already “irreversible”, with droughts, floods, heat waves and storms becoming more frequent.

However, the IPCC also said the 1.5C limit is humanity’s best chance to avoid the very worst effects of climate change. 

How will the UK achieve net-zero emissions?

Last October, the government outlined its strategy for achieving net zero emissions by 2050 in its Net Zero Strategy.

The document outlined the roadmap the government will take towards curbing emissions across all sectors of society, from aviation to housing. 

Some of the key policies outlined included a pledge to power the UK on green electricity by 2035 and a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030. 

A pledge was made to make the UK a “world leader in zero emissions flight” through use of sustainable aviation fuel.

The Net Zero Strategy also outlined plans to aid the transition away from oil and gas through investment in hydrogen production.

To decarbonise housing, the government is offering grants of £5,000 to encourage homeowners to replace their gas boiler with more eco-friendly heat pumps.

Home heating accounts for almost a fifth of total UK emissions. 

A commitment to improving nature by planting 30,000 hectares of woodland per year is also included in the strategy.

Farmers, meanwhile, will be incentivised to practice low-carbon methods of farming to reduce emissions from agriculture.

The government has promised the green transition will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in sectors like renewable energy. 

Why 2050 for net zero?

The goal of reaching net-zero emissions is to prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100, which scientists say is key to minimising soaring temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather. The increase sits at around 1.1C so far.

But reaching net-zero by 2050 actually only means having a 50 per cent chance of keeping temperatures below the 1.5C limit, the Committee on Climate Change said. Experts and policymakers did not think it would be realistic to reach net-zero before 2050 though some nations have set earlier targets, including Scotland (2045).

How much does net zero cost?

There is a lot of uncertainty around the journey to net-zero, so calculating exact figures is difficult for experts. But in 2019 the Climate Change Committee (CCC) estimated the total costs would be £50 billion per year, which is less than one per cent of GDP, while the Treasury said it could be closer to £70 billion per year.

Action taken to save the planet will save the government money, too. Better air quality and less reliance on cars will improve UK health. This could ease pressure on the NHS, which the CCC said could “partially or fully offset costs”.

What is the Net Zero Scrutiny Group?

With around 19 members in the House of Commons, the Conservative Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG) has been set up to “scrutinise” the government’s key climate target.

Members of the group claim that a too-speedy transition to renewable energy has driven the current energy crisis, and say the cost of implementing net zero policies will be too costly, making the poorest poorer. 

They have called for cuts to green taxes and an increase in fossil fuel production – in spite of warnings from scientists that fossil fuel exploration should be halted.

The group say they are not climate change deniers, though two leading members have links to an organisation founded by long-term climate denier Nigel Lawson.

The group’s chair, the MP Craig Mackinlay, has also been accused of propagating misleading information by a leading climate institute.

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