UK climate goals could use a short-term stick

3 minute read

LONDON, April 20 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Boris Johnson has thrown down the climate gauntlet. By committing to tougher targets for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the UK prime minister is making a handily timed environmental splash ahead of a major U.S.-chaired virtual gathering of world leaders later this week. Yet his lofty long-term pledges could do with a shorter-term stick.

Johnson’s ambitions, unveiled on Tuesday, should inject some vigour into preparations for November’s United Nations COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, delayed from last year due to the coronavirus. Previously, the UK wanted to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 68% from 1990 levels by 2030. Now it will have to cut them by 78% by 2035, in line with recommendations made in December by its own Climate Change Committee that assume the UK hits net zero by 2050.

Actually achieving these targets is another matter, though. While Britain’s backward-facing emissions record is strong, with a 40% reduction since 1990, most of this has come from replacing coal-fired power stations with wind and solar farms. Making headway on other sectors, like transport or agriculture, will be tougher politically and socially. For instance, to hit the 2035 target, the CCC says Britons must eat 25% less meat.

That’s a concern given that Britain is already struggling to keep pace with what’s needed. In 2019, the CCC reckoned the government had adopted just one of the 25 policies needed to hit its 2030 target, which envisages overall national emissions of 316 million tonnes. Without drastic course correction, the UK is on track for more than 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gases by that date, according to Carbon Brief analysis.

That suggests the need for shorter-term deadlines that make the target a problem for Johnson, rather than his successors. If parliament were to commit to an absolute level of greenhouse gases by 2025, it would signal a seriousness of purpose in a critical decade for tackling climate change. Alternatively, he could make the pledge himself on a public platform. The alternative is to allow the gap between UK green rhetoric and reality to grow ever wider.

Follow @edwardcropley on Twitter


- The UK government on April 20 committed to steeper cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, targeting a 78% reduction from 1990 levels by 2035, augmenting a pre-existing target of 68% by 2030.

- The UK was one of the first major economies to commit to reducing emissions to net zero by 2050. The government is due to host the United Nations’ COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow in November after a year-long delay caused by the coronavirus.

- Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the 2035 emissions reduction target as the “most ambitious” in the world and challenged other leaders to follow suit in the run-up to the COP26 meeting.

- For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can click on

SIGN UP FOR BREAKINGVIEWS EMAIL ALERTS <a href="" target="_blank"></a> | Editing by George Hay and Oliver Taslic

Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.

Sign up for a free trial of our full service at and follow us on Twitter @Breakingviews and at All opinions expressed are those of the authors.

More from Reuters