University students urge the UK government to look beyond 2050 when planning the path to net zero

University students urge the UK government to look beyond 2050 when planning the path to net zero

The recent publication of the UK's Net Zero Strategy highlights both the challenges and ambitious steps that need to be taken up to 2050 to reach the country’s net zero emissions goal.

However, a new paper from a group of UK university students urges policymakers to also look beyond the horizon of 2050 and consider the impact of policies across the full lifetimes of young people and future generations.

The new paper is published in association with the COP26 Universities Network, as part of a briefing paper series aiming to raise climate ambition ahead of – and beyond - COP26.

The authors argue that reaching net zero should not be seen as an endpoint to the UK’s climate policy. Young and future generations will disproportionately face the impacts of climate change itself, so additional negative consequences of short-sighted policy design should be avoided.

Moreover, the UK cannot act in isolation and should do more to encourage a global transition towards net zero, even once its own transition is complete.

Long-term thinking across energy, carbon removal and leadership

The paper, written by ten students from seven universities across the UK, analyses the long-term implications of net zero policymaking in the UK and explores the need for an increased focus on young and future generations’ interests, while maintaining the urgency of far-reaching and ambitious policy today.

It comes at a critical time ahead of the United Nations COP26 Climate Change Summit, which takes place in Glasgow this November.

"I'm very grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this policy briefing for the COP26 Universities Network and want to encourage fellow students and young people to make their voices heard ahead of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. As the generation who will be most impacted by climate change, we must push to ensure that long-term thinking is embedded into the policymaking process now, to facilitate a just and rapid transition to net zero and beyond" said co-author Luke Hatton, President of the Oxford Climate Society.

The paper explores three net zero policy case studies, focusing on energy systems, carbon removal and international leadership, to highlight how integrating long-term thinking can strengthen the policy decisions made today.

The authors argue that short-termism is a fundamental challenge to achieving net zero emissions in a way that respects the interests of future generations. They make a set of recommendations to integrate a long-term perspective into UK net zero policymaking. These include:

  • Establishing secure and transparent supply chains for the resources essential to a low-carbon energy system
  • Increasing funding for R&D into solutions for energy system waste disposal and recycling
  • Ensuring robust regulation of geological carbon storage with a focus on monitoring the permanence of storage
  • Increasing afforestation while also deploying education programmes to shift consumption patterns and ease land-use competition
  • Establishing a Climate Action Unit within the FCDO to drive long-term international climate leadership by the UK
  • Institutionalise a long-term perspective into climate policymaking, for example, by widening the remit of the Climate Change Committee to include the assessment of the long-term consequences of proposed policy.

Established in 2020, the COP26 Universities Network brings together more than 80 UK universities and research institutes. They aim to improve access to evidence and academic expertise for the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow for the UK Government, NGOs and the international community, working together to deliver ambitious climate change outcomes.

The author group would like to thank all the academics who offered their expertise to this project.