The United Kingdom has become the first major economy to commit to ‘net zero’ carbon emissions after outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May announced she would set a 2050 target before leaving office next month.

It is the first time that a major G7 economy has made a commitment to achieving ‘net zero’ carbon emissions, but Norway (2030) and Finland (2035) have set significantly earlier target dates.

Last month, the UK parliament declared a ‘climate emergency’ after pressure from environmental and climate protesters.

Getting to ‘net zero’ means combining a major reduction in pollution with practices that balance out remaining emissions by, for example, building up carbon stocks in our environment, such as in wetlands, or by planting more trees, which capture CO2.

The EU has announced an ambition to be ‘climate neutral’ by 2050 but details are yet to be published. Last month eight EU countries called for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and demands are growing for ‘net zero’ to become official policy in the next five years.

Announcing the decision, May posted a letter to Twitter, noting that businesses, faith leaders and climate campaigners had pressured her to take action.

The UK’s carbon emissions have already dropped by 38% since 1990, faster than any other major economy, according to the website CarbonBrief. The fall in emissions is linked to cleaner electricity production – including a major drop in the use of coal-fired power stations – as well as less demand for energy from homes and businesses.

The UK’s power grid has been coal-free for long stretches on multiple occasions recently, including what went on to become a ‘coal free fortnight’ last month.

This week’s net zero announcement was broadly welcomed by environmental campaigners including some of the EEB’s members in the UK.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth England and Wales welcomed the announcement:

“In the dying days of a premiership characterised by chronic inaction on climate breakdown, this sends a powerful message to industry and investors that the age of fossil fuels is over.”

Beccy Speight, CEO of Woodland Trust said that the net zero goal presented a unique opportunity to link climate action to measures to tackle biodiversity loss by increasing the UK’s forest cover:

“In creating new, native, broadleaved woodlands and planting more trees into the landscape, existing woodland and other semi-natural habitats can be extended, restored and linked to enable wildlife to respond to climate change over the coming decades.”

Dustin Benton, Policy Director at GreenAlliance, said that with all parties supporting climate action the announcement was a rare moment of political unity for the UK.

Benton also called for the UN’s 2020 climate conference to be held in the UK and said it was important the the next finance minister recognised the benefits of climate action.

Meanwhile James Murray, editor of the BusinessGreen, described it as a “truly historic moment” and wrote a blog entry reflecting on the “20 years of hard work” that had led up to the announcement.

However, praise for May’s announcement was not universal as it was pointed out she had ignored a crucial part of the advice of the country’s independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

While the CCC had backed the 2050 date, its official advice was to avoid the use of ‘international carbon credits’, which allow emissions to be offset from abroad.

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