With utilities at the heart of the drive to decarbonise and global warming now an emergency issue, Mike Thompson of the Committee on Climate Change tells Suzanne Heneghan why 2050 must be the net-zero target

Mike Thompson is a man in demand, as revealed by the queue forming to speak to the head of carbon budgets at the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), at Utility Week Live’s keynote theatre recently.

Combatting global warming is an issue that has raced up the policy agenda. Now, ten years on from the Climate Change Act, with the popular mood behind environmental lobby groups such as Extinction Rebellion and the official declaration of a “climate emergency”, I asked Thompson if it had suddenly felt like the perfect moment to publish the CCC report, as well as whether its target for net zero emissions by 2050 will deliver change soon enough.

And it’s an unequivocal “yes” on both counts.

“We think it [2050] is the fastest we can credibly aim for at the moment,” he said, although he was careful to say that bringing it forward was not being ruled out. “We didn’t say it was impossible to go earlier. But we don’t think it would be credible to aim for it now.”

He was also at pains to clear up a growing misunderstanding in some quarters about the targets.

“The clear message in the report is to aim for 2050 – but proper net zero, so all greenhouse gases, including aviation and shipping. Set that as a goal. And if you can do that in the UK, other developed countries can do it at the same time. Developing countries can come still a bit later, and so you can still hit 1.5 degrees. So, it’s more ambitious than we need at a global level.

“It’s really important to be clear about that – there’s a misconception out there that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said carbon neutral by 2050 for the world. But that’s only carbon dioxide. Our report is for all greenhouse gases.

Thompson added: “In terms of all the background – Extinction Rebellion, the school strikes, you’re right – it makes this an amazing moment to launch this report. But more than that, it’s really important globally – the next 18 months are the time for the world to ratchet up its ambition on the Paris Agreement.”

The UK moving now would be a game-changing international development and a way to help others build on that effort, he said. “And this report is a blueprint for how you can do it. And the UK would have to do it, if it were written into the Climate Change Act. Us doing that would be an incredibly strong signal to send out, and it really would make a difference.”

The CCC are official advisers, rather than policymakers, so will government go for it? “The line our chairman said [to government] in the report is ‘You asked for it’. They requested this advice. They said they would listen to the scientific evidence.

“We’ve said there’s the evidence, and the evidence says this is the right target – it has to be net zero 2050. It has to be delivered in the UK, it has to be all greenhouse gases. To follow the evidence, they have to accept it.”