The UK is to set a legally binding target to end its contribution to climate change by 2050, Prime Minister Theresa May has announced.
The Government is laying out legislation in Parliament on Wednesday to set a new target to cut emissions to “net zero” by the middle of the century.
The statutory instrument will amend the existing goal to cut climate pollution by 80% by 2050, which was agreed by MPs under the Climate Change Act in 2008.
The move comes after the Government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change called for the new legal target to be brought in as soon as possible and to urgently ramp up action to cut emissions.
Hitting net zero – a 100% cut in emissions – will mean an end to heating of homes with traditional gas boilers, more green electricity, and a switch from petrol and diesel cars to electric vehicles, walking and cycling.
It could require people to eat less meat and dairy and take fewer flights.
Any remaining pollution in 2050 from areas including aviation will need to be “offset” through measures to cut carbon such as planting trees.
The committee told the Government the move would be in line with commitments to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels under the international Paris Agreement and will provide leadership for other countries on tackling climate change.
A leaked letter last week showed the Treasury warning the PM that making the shift to a zero carbon economy would cost at least £1 trillion.
But the committee said it will cost around 1-2% of annual economic output up to 2050 – the same as predicted a decade ago for the 80% target – while the cost of inaction would be many times higher.
The shift, which is achievable with known technologies, will deliver economic opportunities and other benefits, the committee said.
In the wake of the committee’s recommendations, scientists, campaigners and health professionals have been urging the Prime Minister to bring in a net zero target before she stands down, as a legacy of her premiership.
Number 10 said the move would boost public health, air quality and nature and will make the UK a leader on climate action, as the first G7 group of major economies to put a net zero target into law.
But it was “imperative” other countries follow suit, so there will be a review within five years to ensure other nations are taking similarly ambitious action, and that British industries are not facing unfair competition.
In the wake of widespread climate strikes by schoolchildren and students, the Government is also setting up a Youth Steering Group for young people to advise it on priorities for environmental action.
Mrs May said: “As the first country to legislate for long-term climate targets, we can be truly proud of our record in tackling climate change.
“We have made huge progress in growing our economy and the jobs market while slashing emissions.
“Now is the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children.
“This country led the world in innovation during the Industrial Revolution, and now we must lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth.
“Standing by is not an option. Reaching net zero by 2050 is an ambitious target, but it is crucial that we achieve it to ensure we protect our planet for future generations.”
The Government said it would retain the ability to use international carbon credits, which allow the UK to pay to offset its emissions elsewhere in the world.
Committee on Climate Change chairman Lord Deben said he was delighted the Government was putting the net zero target to a parliamentary vote and was looking forward to cross-party consensus on the issue.
“This is a major commitment for the coming decades, but we have highlighted the significant benefits of action.
“This step will send a strong signal to other countries to follow suit – and will help to drive the global effort to tackle climate change required by the Paris Agreement.
“This is just the first step. The target must now be reinforced by credible UK policies, across government, inspiring a strong response from business, industry and society as a whole.”
Shadow energy secretary Rebecca Long Bailey said: “While this announcement is welcome in theory, in practice it comes from a Conservative government that is off track to meet existing climate targets, that has no plans for legislation or investment needed to cut emissions, and that has dismantled the UK renewable energy sector while pushing fracking.”
Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of business group the CBI, said UK companies were “squarely behind” the commitment.
She said: “This legislation is the right response to the global climate crisis, and firms are ready to play their part in combating it.
“Climate leadership can drive UK competitiveness and secure long-term prosperity.
“This legislation must be followed by a commitment to long-term policies that support decarbonisation across the economy,” she urged.
“Some sectors will need clear pathways to enable investment in low-carbon technologies, and it is vital that there is cross-Government coordination on the policies and regulation needed to deliver a clean future.”
Gareth Redmond King, head of climate change at the environmental charity WWF, said the announcement was a “crucial first step”.
He said: “If we want future generations to live on a viable planet where the mass extinctions we’re witnessing halt, food security is ensured and coastal regions are safe, then Government must accelerate policies and commit resource to slashing emissions, heat our homes with clean energy and make climate action a priority across all departments.”
He added the speed in developing innovative technologies like solar panels and wind turbines in the past decade should provide hope the UK could go faster and reach net zero by 2045.