The United Kingdom could become the first major economy in the world to legally require itself to emit net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to a new plan unveiled Tuesday.
Prime Minister Theresa May said her government would introduce legislation to amend the country’s 2008 climate change act and include the new midcentury target. The change will go before Parliament on Wednesday and, if enacted, would make the U.K. the first G7 country to take such a step.
“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,” May said in a statement. “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.”
Nearly 200 countries signed the landmark Paris climate agreement more than three years ago, vowing to do their part to keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Scientists agree that doing so would avoid the worst effects of climate change, but the deal has been criticized as not going far enough to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.
Even with the lower Paris targets, the world is still far off-track from meeting those goals. President Donald Trump said the United States would withdraw itself from the accord shortly after he was elected, and scientists have since issued warnings that emissions are accelerating at a breakneck pace.
May’s recent decision came after the U.K.’s independent Committee on Climate Change urged the government to alter its emission goals if the country hoped to meet targets set forth in the Paris Agreement. The CCC said last month that in order to do so, the U.K. would have to launch a dramatic initiative to reduce energy demand, invest in carbon-capture technology and even encourage the populace to eat less meat and dairy. The country had already set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.
“We can all see that the climate is changing and it needs a serious response,” John Gummer, the chair of the committee, said at the time, according to The Associated Press. “The government should accept the recommendations and set about making the changes needed to deliver them without delay.”
Environmental groups have expressed some disappointment with May’s plan, which would allow the U.K. to purchase international carbon credits. Doug Parr, chief scientists for Greenpeace UK, told The Guardian the provision amounted to a “loophole” that would shift the burden of full adaptation in part to developing nations.
“This type of offsetting has a history of failure and is not, according to the government’s climate advisers, cost-efficient,” Parr told The Guardian.
But the move has already been hailed by the CCC, which said it had found that shifting toward net zero emissions, long touted as the only environmentally sustainable step by climate scientists, is “necessary, feasible and cost effective.”
“This is a major commitment for the coming decades,” the group’s chairman said in a statement. “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.”
May announced her resignation as the Conservative Party leader last month, stepping down on June 7 and remaining in power as a lame-duck prime minister until her replacement is chosen. She had struggled to steer the U.K. through the process of leaving the European Union (termed Brexit) but said at the time that she had done her “best” while leading the country.
“I feel as certain today as I did three years ago that in a democracy, if you give people a choice, you have a duty to implement what they decide. I have done my best to do that,” May said while announcing her resignation. “I have done everything I can to convince MPs to back that [Brexit] deal. Sadly, I have not been able to do so.”