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Sam Hall is Head of Research at Bright Blue, an independent think tank for liberal conservatism.

Earlier this week Claire Perry, the Energy Minister, announced that the UK would soon review its long-term climate change targets to bring them in line with the Paris Agreement.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which is currently being held in London for the first time in two decades, was a very appropriate context for this significant step.

Not only would further action to reduce the UK’s emissions benefit many of the Commonwealth countries that are particularly threatened by climate change, such as Bangladesh and Fiji, but it would also set a powerful example of leadership for other Commonwealth countries to follow.

There are other reasons why this was a very timely announcement. This year marks the tenth anniversary since the Climate Change Act 2008 became law.

With this legislation, the UK became the first country in the world to put in statute a long-term target for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, a framework that has been copied around the world, for instance in Mexico and Sweden. Last year, Perry bolstered UK international leadership on climate change by establishing the Powering Past Coal Alliance with Canada, to encourage countries and organisations to move away from burning coal, as this country has committed to by the mid-2020s.

This week’s move sets up the next stage of UK leadership, which should be to enshrine in law a ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emission target, in line with the goal in the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

A ‘net zero’ target would entail the effective elimination of man-made emissions of greenhouse gases in the UK, with those that remain either removed from the atmosphere, for instance by trees, or offset by the UK Government funding emissions reduction elsewhere in the world.

The scientific evidence is clear that, if the worst impacts of climate change are to be avoided, the world must stop adding to the concentration of greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere within the next few decades. This means every country will effectively have to achieve net zero emissions.

Although all the countries in the Paris Agreement are signed up to the net zero target, just a handful have formally adopted it. The UK could become the first major economy to make the target legally-binding and could provide much-needed leadership to the global campaign, starting with Commonwealth nations this week.

New Bright Blue polling shows that a net zero target would be a popular move at home and would reflect the growing concern about climate change, particularly among younger voters. Previous Bright Blue research has shown the importance of climate change to younger voters, which found that climate change was the top issue under-28s want to hear senior politicians discuss more.

First, this new polling highlights the extent of public concern on climate change. When ranking different long-term environment priorities for the Government to focus on, UK adults put climate change joint second after plastic waste. In fact, a majority of UK adults (51 per cent) are more worried about climate change than they were ten years ago when the Climate Change Act 2008 was passed. Just four per cent are less worried. We also find that nearly two-thirds of UK adults agree that weather around the world is becoming more extreme because of climate change caused by humans. An even higher proportion (72 per cent) of under-40s agree.

Second, the polling shows strong public support for the UK demonstrating international leadership on tackling climate change, with 63 per cent of UK adults agreeing that the UK should be a global leader in tackling climate change. A slightly higher proportion (66 per cent) of under-40s agree and a slightly lower proportion (56 per cent) – but still a majority – of Conservative voters agree. When asked how quickly the UK should cut its emissions relative to other countries, a large majority of UK adults (90 per cent) believe the UK should cut its emissions at least as quickly as other countries.

On the net zero target specifically, nearly two-thirds of UK adults agree that the UK should aim to cut its carbon emissions to zero in the next few decades, so it doesn’t add any more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. There is roughly the same level of support among under-40s and among Conservative voters. People are also positive about the economic impacts of reducing emissions, with 61 per cent agreeing that, by cutting its emissions, the UK will benefit economically by creating new low-carbon industries.

Adopting a net zero target, therefore, would reinforce the Government’s recent efforts to reach out to younger voters with new policies to protect and enhance the environment. Appealing to younger voters without trading off existing Conservative voters is the key to the party regaining its parliamentary majority at the next election, and this polling analysis suggests a net zero target could help to achieve this.

The Government deserves great credit for its leadership at the Commonwealth and for moving the UK towards this world-leading target.

47 comments for: Sam Hall: How the UK could lead the Commonwealth on climate change

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