UK Pledges 78% Emissions Cuts by 2035

The climate change law brings forward the current target by 15 years.

Typical red double decker bus near the Big Ben

Massimo Borchi/Atlantide Phototravel / Getty Images

When researchers at Climate & Intelligence Unit launched a new tool to scrutinize Net-Zero pledges from governments and companies alike, they outlined several key characteristics to watch for. Among the most important, these include: 

  • Timing: Meaning what year the net-zero goal is set for, and also whether or not there are interim targets established. For example, 50% reduction by 2030.
  • Coverage: Meaning what gases, and what sectors, are covered by the pledge. 
  • Governance: Meaning is this just an empty promise, or are there some actual consequences in failing to deliver?

It’s no wonder then that campaigners are cautiously celebrating the United Kingdom's commitment to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels. Specifically, keeping the characteristics above in mind, there are several reasons to be optimistic. 

Most notable is the fact that the commitment essentially moves forward the timeframe for emissions reductions by 15 years. The previous time frame promised an 80% reduction by 2050, which is in sync with the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Not only that, but for the first time ever, the pledge includes emissions from both international aviation and shipping. These are sectors that had previously been excluded, which raises the likelihood of carbon taxes on jet fuel and/or frequent flyer levies in the not too distant future.

It can be tempting to be skeptical about government commitments. But it is also extremely notable that the commitment is being signed into law, which essentially means the government — and those that follow — will be legally required to produce plans that are in keeping with this pledge. 

With the U.K. hosting the COP26 conference in November, there’s also reason to be hopeful this pledge will result in a similar increase in ambition from other nations. That’s certainly how Prime Minister Boris Johnson framed the pledge.

“The U.K. will be home to pioneering businesses, new technologies, and green innovation as we make progress to net-zero emissions, laying the foundations for decades of economic growth in a way that creates thousands of jobs," said Johnson in a statement.

"We want to see world leaders follow our lead and match our ambition in the run-up to the crucial climate summit COP26, as we will only build back greener and protect our planet if we come together to take action," said Johnson.

That said, the U.K.’s track record on cutting emissions — while better than many countries — is still somewhat mixed, as are its plans moving forward. On the one hand, we’ve seen impressive grid decarbonization and promises to invest in mass transit. On the other hand, the government scrapped its flagship green homes grant scheme after just six months of operation and activists are anxious to see what plans will be put in place. The goal requires phasing out fossil-fueled home heating, cars with internal combustion engines, and many, many other carbon-intensive sources of emissions. 

Still, goals themselves — when near-term, suitably ambitious, and legally binding — can be an incredibly useful tool for holding governments accountable. That might be why when surveilling the response from U.K. climate campaigners, the general mood seemed to range from cautiously welcoming to openly celebratory. 

Here’s how Greenpeace UK "welcomed" the news: 

Too many times we’ve seen big promises not backed up with real plans. The govt must (for starters)
🚗cancel new road building
🏠invest in insulating our homes
🛫stop airport expansion plans
☀️support more green solutions like renewables
🛢️stop new fossil fuel projects.
— Greenpeace UK (@GreenpeaceUK) April 20, 2021

Meanwhile, Mike Thompson, director of analysis at the Climate Change Committee UK (CCC), which is the independent body tasked with making recommendations to the government, was quick to point out the legally binding nature of the pledge. And the fact that the U.K. government will now be required to develop policies and proposals to show how it will achieve its ambition. 

Reminder: the reported 78% UK emissions target for 2035 isn't some wishy-washy 'ambition'. It will be written in a law (the Climate Change Act 2008) that *requires* policies be introduced to meet it. @theCCCuk will be here scrutinising those policies thoroughly and independently
— Mike Thompson (@Mike_Thommo) April 20, 2021

For the policy wonks among us, Thompson pointed to the CCC website for background briefings and information on how the legal framework for such pledges works.

For now though, for today, it’s fair to say the U.K. government has lifted the bar on what an ambitious climate promise — one that is made on a suitable timeline — should look like.
Activists will now be laser-focused on making sure that they actually deliver.