UK sets world’s most ambitious climate target

Bloated: India (above), China and the USA make up 50% of all global carbon emissions © Getty

Will Britain’s move create a global turning point? Some think one relatively small island can’t make a difference – but others believe the UK will set a powerful example.

The year is 2035. All cars run on electricity, not petrol; charging stations line every street. The air feels clean, even in city centres. Long-haul flights are a thing of the past – now everyone takes their holidays by train. Most people only eat meat and dairy once a week, if at all. Outside the cities, acres of land are covered in new forest.

That is how the UK might look under new plans, released yesterday, to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035.

In itself, this will not make a huge difference to global carbon emissions. The UK makes up just 1.1% of the total, after all.

But supporters of the new target argue the country can lead by example, showing that steep cuts in emissions are possible, and encouraging others to make similar cuts.

Other countries are also looking to toughen up their climate policies. This week, Joe Biden promised a radical new plan for cutting emissions. France is pushing ahead with a set of climate laws that will include a ban on domestic flights.

And with the German Green Party looking increasingly likely to lead the country’s next government, some think we are witnessing a sea change in the global response to the climate crisis.

Some also see this as a question of climate justice. They point out that while the UK’s total emissions are relatively small, its per capita emissions are among the highest in the world.

So it is only fair, they say, that British people should cut back more than others.

But many are sceptical that this is a genuine milestone. They argue that the climate crisis can only be solved by the world’s biggest polluters: China, the USA and India.

And some claim that the UK is not wholly committed to its new target. It is not currently on track even to meet its previous target of a 68% emissions cut by 2030.

The government has been criticised for giving out new licences for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, and proposing a new coal mine in Cumbria, although that plan has now been shelved.

Will Britain’s move create a global turning point?

Turning up the heat

Yes, say some. Even if the UK’s carbon footprint is not huge compared with China’s, it still pollutes more than the vast majority of poorer countries. The climate crisis can only be solved if every wealthy country drastically scales back its emissions, and the UK is showing the way forward.

No, say others. No matter what any one country does, there is simply no way of cutting emissions fast enough to avoid a global climate crisis. Instead, we should focus on reducing the impacts of global heating: more extreme weather events, mass migrations and loss of biodiversity.

You Decide

  1. Should everyone have to give up meat and dairy to save the planet?
  2. Should developed nations compensate less developed ones for their contributions to global heating?


  1. Draw a picture of a city street in 2035, after a 78% emissions cut. Then show your picture to a partner and compare your ideas.
  2. You are going to hold your own mini climate conference. Get in a small group and assign each person a country: China, India, the USA and the UK must be represented. Then try to negotiate a plan for each country to reduce its emissions.

Some People Say...

“Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Albert Camus (1913 – 1960), French thinker

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that the costs of climate change are not distributed equally. It is estimated that 75% of all historical carbon emissions were produced by industrialised nations, yet the worst impacts of global heating will be felt in the less developed world. In sub-Saharan Africa, temperature rise has turned swathes of farmland into desert. In Bangladesh, 15 million people will be displaced by rising sea levels by 2050.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over the progress the world has so far made on the climate crisis. Scientists warn that global emissions need to be cut by 45% this decade to keep global heating down to 1.5C. There was some optimism last year when the pandemic cut emissions by a record 7%, but this year is now forecast to see the second-highest increase in emissions in history. Some experts think that a 1.5C temperature rise is now inevitable: it might be too late to stop catastrophic global heating.

Word Watch

Meat and dairy
Animals raised for slaughter are responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, largely caused by the cost of growing crops to feed them, and the emissions they produce themselves.
Greenhouse gas
The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon necessary to sustain life on Earth, but it is responsible for rapid global warming when levels of greenhouse gases are too high.
Carbon emissions
Carbon dioxide makes up around 80% of global greenhouse emissions. It enters the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels, solid waste and chemical reactions.
Radical new plan
The US president is expected to make the plan public at a summit of 40 world leaders tomorrow. It includes a new emissions reduction target and a financial pledge to help less wealthy countries combat climate change.
German Green Party
A progressive environmentalist party that is surging in the German polls ahead of September’s general election.
Climate justice
A slogan used by some environmentalists to emphasise that the climate crisis is an ethical issue as well as an environmental one.
Per capita
The total figure of something divided by the number of people in the country. It literally translates as “per head”.

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