Reaching net-zero carbon emissions will require further transformation of the UK’s energy system.

Theresa May has announced a dramatic step-up of the UK’s efforts to tackle climate change. 

The outgoing Prime Minister pledged that by the middle of the century greenhouse gas emissions in the UK will be reduced to net-zero. In the parts of the economy where emissions are difficult to eliminate entirely, like cattle farming, remaining emissions will be offset by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

For young people worried about climate change, the key issue is whether the new target is ambitious enough. 

Izzy Warren of the UK Student Climate Network, which helps to organise the #SchoolStrike4Climate movement in the UK, told The Guardian that “[the] target year for 2050 is severely lacking in ambition and disregards any sense of climate justice.”

Although the 2050 target is ambitious by international standards, it is much later than the 2025 target demanded by activist groups like Extinction Rebellion. 

The 2050 target gives UK industry more time to reduce environmental impacts, and has attracted broad support from climate change experts like Lord Stern, who told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in April that “the target of zero net emissions by 2050 makes sense and that looks like the right one.”

However, even the 2050 target will require future governments to make difficult political choices. Will Theresa May’s successors be willing to take unpopular steps like reducing the demand for meat and regular air travel through taxation and regulation? Or will they restrict their efforts to reducing emissions in areas like electricity generation, which will require fewer lifestyle changes for the population? 

A taste of the potential for the future political wrangling over the target came as Downing Street rejected Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond’s claim that the new target could have a price tag of £1tn and, in addition to the political cost of spending public funds on climate mitigation rather than essential services, would risk the UK economy’s international competitiveness.

The disagreement highlights the importance of developing public understanding of the reasons why emissions must be cut. A well-informed public will be one which is more likely to support future government policies aimed at meeting the UK’s net-zero commitment, even if these policies involve financial costs and lifestyle changes.

Climate education programmes, like ICN’s Climate Voices II, will be critical to creating this understanding among the young as emissions are reduced in next thirty years. 

A key challenge in creating this understanding was highlighted by the 2018 British Social Attitudes survey, which recorded large disparities in climate change awareness among young people depending on their level of education. Among those whose highest education level is GCSE or lower, a third of respondents told pollsters that they had thought ‘very little’ or ‘not at all’ about climate change. 

For ICN, the large numbers of school students who are not aware of climate change represents an opportunity. Prior work with students at our Climate Conferences has shown that with encouragement and the right support, school students can not only be made aware of the climate crisis, but also transformed into the climate leaders of the future when they are given the tools to act in their schools and communities. 

As the UK adjusts the scale of its ambition on emissions reduction, this work to engage and build leadership among the young is more important than ever before.