‘A huge moment’: Boris Johnson confirms 78% emissions cut for 2035

The prime minister has declared that the government will legislate to adopt the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) for the sixth carbon budget, sparking a new focus on delivery over target-setting for the body.

The policies needed to reach the 78% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 have yet to be unveiled. Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

The previously-rumoured announcement that the UK will cut greenhouse gas emissions by 78% over the 2033-37 period comes ahead of a global climate summit convened by US president Joe Biden, adding pressure on other countries to drive forward decarbonisation efforts. The two-day event opens tomorrow.

“We want to continue to raise the bar on tackling climate change, and that’s why we’re setting the most ambitious target to cut emissions in the world. The UK 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 yesterday.

It comes on top of a 68% cut for 2030 adopted under the Paris Agreement, which has made the 2027-32 fifth carbon budget effectively redundant.

“This latest target shows the world that the UK is serious about protecting the health of our planet, while also seizing the new economic opportunities it will bring and capitalising on green technologies – yet another step as we build back greener from the pandemic and we lead the world towards a cleaner, more prosperous future for this generation and those to come,” business and energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said.

A critical difference between the sixth and earlier budgets is the inclusion of the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions, which were excluded from national emission accounts.

The Aviation Environment Federation described the move as the “end of an era for fossil-fuelled aviation”.

“After many years of slipping the net when it comes to climate change, and expecting special privileges, airlines will now need to start planning for a very different future. Including international aviation in UK climate law gives a strong message from ministers that all sectors of the UK economy need to be on the same path towards net zero emissions. Now the government will need to make sure that’s delivered,” said its deputy director Cait Hewitt.

A consultation on how the aviation sector should be decarbonised is due to open next month, which could curtail the controversial expansion of local airports and Heathrow, reconsider taxation, and put forward annual emissions targets for airlines. The industry has largely focused instead on offsetting its emissions via the CORSIA scheme.

The CCC described its recommendations for the sixth carbon budget, which was published in December, as “ambitious, realistic and affordable”, considering the rapidly falling cost of renewables and saving on fossil fuel expenditure.

Its chief executive Chris Stark described the full acceptance of the report “a huge moment” for climate policy.

“Until 2019 the UK's 2050 target was an 80% reduction. It has effectively been brought forward by 15 years,” he tweeted, adding that the extension to aviation was agreed after “serious discussion” in the cabinet.

But it also means that the CCC’s interest in setting targets will now decline, while “our fascination with delivery increases. Delivery is a challenge for government and society - we seek credible and beneficial steps across the economy to deliver the sixth carbon budget and net zero,” Stark said.

Major planks of the governmental policy on decarbonisation are still to be published, not least the Treasury’s Net Zero Review and the overarching Net Zero Strategy, to come just ahead of the COP26 talks.

Thus far, the UK has beaten the first and second carbon budgets and is on track to do so for the third, covering 2017-2022, helped by dwindling reliance on coal for power. But there is still a substantial distance between projected emissions and later budgets.

“What we need now is to ensure there is no gap between ambition and policy, so the UK has the right tools in its armoury to meet these targets,” said executive director of Green Alliance Shaun Spiers.