What is actually being done about Climate Change? - The Climate Change Act

If the government action against climate change is to be improved then the policies and legislation currently in place must first be understood allowing the areas in which improvement is possible to be identified. Among green campaign groups, the existence of the gap between the interventions called for by experts and those carried out by governments but exactly where these gaps are is not always clear making them difficult to close. The scale of the Climate Crisis makes such problems inevitable. Climate change has effects in a diverse array of areas of life and at every scale from the personal to the global. Consequently, it is very difficult to assess whether the current response to climate change is adequate. Does the policy that works well in one context work well in others? Is the positive effect of a given intervention large enough? Trying to answer these questions in the context of the totality of society interacting with society is very difficult and requires that we are able to understand the interaction within a system with uncountable moving parts, including; legislation, policy, the biosphere, the economy, and the climate. In this series, we will explore the current state of climate legislation and policy in the UK, highlighting the shortcomings that are present and showing the most effective ways to influence the governance of the climate crisis going forwards.

Graphic by Aimée Lister

The Foundations of UK Climate Legislation

The Kyoto Protocol treaty of 1997 was one of the first serious attempts at a coordinated international response to the changing global climate. Targets were set for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions for 2008-12 for all industrialised countries that ratified the bill, which included the UK. However, seeing these targets as not ambitious enough the UK established its own more stringent goals for 2010, yet by 2004 it became clear that they would not be met. Wanting to establish itself as a global leader on climate change, the UK government responded by creating the Climate Change Act 2008 which now forms the foundation of contemporary British climate change policy.

The central concern of the Climate Change Act is to bring about a reduction of greenhouse emissions and therefore limit global heating. In its six parts it provides the frameworks for how this should be done through defining targets, enacting policies to meet those targets, and measuring the success of those policies relative to the targets. Considerations of space mean that a full breakdown of the Act requires future articles, but we turn our attention now to the first of its six parts.

Summary of Part 1 of the Climate Change Act

Major outputs of the Act:

The most tangible outcomes from the Act are the specific emissions targets that it sets for greenhouse gases emitted from sources in the UK over different time periods.

Firstly, there are emissions targets for specific landmark years. The original legislation lays out targets for 2020, and 2050, but there is provision for additional targets to be set for other specific years. The percentage emissions reductions are calculated relative to baseline years in the 1990’s.

Landmark year targets:

  • 2020: 34% net reduction

  • 2050: 100% net reduction

  • (these represent the current targets, both have been changed since the Act was first passed)

Secondly, Carbon budgets are set for each 5 year period, 12 years in advance of the start of the period in question. The budgets must be developed so as to allow the landmark year emissions targets to be achieved.

The setting of these targets is the responsibility of the Secretary of State, subject to positive affirmation procedure meaning that they must be accepted by both Houses of Parliament.

Consultation of experts and stakeholders

In the setting (or altering as may be) of the budgets and targets the Secretary of State must take into consideration the advice of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC, established in part 2 of The Act) as well as the representative bodies of other national authorities (Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish Ministers).

Any alteration of emissions targets is also subject to consultation. However, this may only take place in the case that there has been a significant change to the evidential base on which the initial target was based, or changes to the international laws (EU laws at the time) targets are based on.

Policy making

The Secretary of State must prepare policies that will enable the budget targets to be met, whilst also facilitating sustainable development.

At this stage only the national authorities, and not the CCC, must be considered.


The Act makes various provisions for reports to be made to parliament of:

  • The policies that will be used in order to ensure that targets are met

  • The emissions that result and how these compare to the targets that were set. This must be done -

  • Annually

  • At the end of budget periods

  • When landmark years are reached (e.g. 2050).

In the case that targets are not met then the statement must explain why they have not been met.

Shortcomings of Part 1 of the Climate Change Act

The most glaring shortcoming of this legislation’s ability to ensure that the UK adequately contributes to a better climate future is the way in which “UK emissions” are defined. In the Act ‘UK emissions’, means emissions of greenhouse gases from sources in the UK. This allows the UK to absolve itself of the responsibility for emissions related to goods that are consumed inside the UK but produced elsewhere. These emissions are a direct result of the activities of the UK and the benefits of consuming them are accrued by the UK. It is only right that the ‘cost’ in terms of taking responsibility for the emissions be placed on the UK too. Until this is done, there is no incentive for the UK to take action to reduce these emissions. The exportation of emissions simply passes the buck to other nations where political landscapes and more pressing development concerns are even more likely to prevent the timely removal of these emissions. Additionally, all the time that the UK market is providing demand for carbon intensive goods then other economies are incentivised to produce those goods and the carbon footprint that accompanies them. Similarly, emissions related to international air and sea transport that are related to the UK must be included in the UK carbon account. The global nature of the Climate Crisis, condemns attempts at solutions that rely on nationalistic policies. Simply exporting emissions does nothing to help progress towards a more positive global climate future. It is time that our legislation changed to recognise that fact. If the UK is serious about reducing carbon emissions then it must take at least partial responsibility for all the emissions that it has a role in producing, not only those that are directly produced on its soil.

The Act focuses narrowly on climate change and thereby ignores that policy and legislation that are not directly targeted towards climate change have a great deal of impact on emissions goals. Setting targets and policy narrowly focused on the climate crisis is insufficient to solve a problem of this scale if other actors (government departments, economic sectors) and other levels of stakeholders (from private individuals up to international organisations) do not also act in a coordinated and pro climate manner. The Secretary of State does not have the power to ensure that whatever targets they set are met because the relevant emissions largely originate from activities that are outside of their control. Meeting emissions targets relies on coordinated action across all these sectors, and this requires the development of an unprecedented framework to align a diverse range of actors towards a shared and mutually beneficial target.

Once set, emissions targets can only be changed if there is a significant change to either the evidential basis or the laws that underpin them. In the context of the extensive stripping back of environmental regulations in the US under the Trump administration, it is important that climate regulations contain some inertia to prevent flip flopping between different objectives when the priorities of those in power change over time. However, such inertia also comes with the risk of locking in overly conservatives targets. Target setting decisions will not always be made correctly the first time round, and although changing evidence is one way in which such mistakes come to light it is not the only one. On occasion the political values in play will lead to a certain interpretation of the evidence which is later contested. It is important that the target setting process takes the existence of diverse political values into consideration. It may be that a change in legislation is needed to ensure that political values enter the target setting process at the appropriate stage and are not used to dilute the expert advice that is provided by the CCC. This should not be read as a call for technocracy, but rather for renewed attempts to ensure that expert advice is not unduly sidelined by political values or interests. Equally, expert advice should never be used to silence legitimate political considerations, a careful balance needs to be struck.

The Secretary of State is free to decide on the policies required to meet emissions targets without consulting the CCC. This creates the risk that the policies will not be effective in achieving their targets due either to lack of technical expertise, or because they are molded with other political goals in mind making them less effective in delivering the desired emissions outcomes. The statutory consultation of expert advice, such as that from the CCC, during policy makings would help to prevent political interests or lack of expertise from interfering with the achievement of climate goals.

The Act requires that policies be created to ensure that the landmark year emissions targets are met, but does not require policies to ensure that the shorter term budgetary period targets are met. This poses no problem if the landmark year targets are achieved, but creates the risk that policies will drift away from their long term targets and not be corrected until it's either too late or drastic and painful action is required to correct the course. Requiring policies to be linked to the shorter term budgetary periods, themselves aiming towards the long term targets, will help to keep the policy landscape on track to deliver these longer term goals.


Economic and fiscal outcomes are included in the list of considerations which the Secretary of State may take into account when assigning emissions targets, creating the possibility for efforts to meet emissions targets to be diluted. Clearly, economic and fiscal outcomes are important. It is not reasonable to expect a decision to be made with only climate in mind and no consideration of consequences in other areas. Sustainable development is an essential consideration of any pro environmental policy. But with the legislation as it is, a Secretary of State so inclined may sideline the climate issue by appealing to these other concerns. Further dilution is made possible a clause which explicitly allows the inclusion of any other relevant considerations. Again, there is good reason to include such a clause, since this will prevent important, but as yet undiscovered, considerations from being excluded from the policy process. However, the legislations as it stands is at the mercy of both those who wish to impede society's progress towards sustainability, or for whom other concerns are more pressing. Legislation which gives power to a deliberative body made up of politicians and experts on a more equal footing may be better protected from derailment by individuals not invested in positive action against the climate crisis.

Emissions targets, reports, and policies must be set out before parliament under the stipulations of the act. This is essential in keeping the government accountable to parliament, and indirectly the public. However, climate change can’t be tackled by parliamentarians alone. Stakeholders throughout the population must be actively involved in taking pro-climate and pro-environment measures. Good communications of laws, policies, and targets to all sections of the public is thus essential and as yet absent. To many, climate change is a generalised problem to be tackled based on vague understandings of reduced emissions and waste, making efficient and timely progress towards a better climate future difficult. The clear communication of key climate related information to each role in society will allow people to follow best practice more closely. Additionally, informed stakeholders will be able to use their expert understanding of their particular circumstances and interaction with the environment to show where policies can be improved.

The consequence of missing emissions targets is that an explanation of why this happened must be presented to parliament. This provides little or no incentive to ensure that targets are met. But as was highlighted before, the meeting of targets is largely outside of the power of the Secretary of State anyway. The stricter reporting requirements called for above are all the more essential in this light. If those in power are to be held to account then those they represent must be able to clearly see when they fail to achieve what they have set out to do. Clear public representations of the extent to which targets have been met may prevent inadequate action from being hidden behind vague notions of “improvements” and “progress” based on token policies that move things in the direction of goals without ever having a realistic chance of arriving at them.

If we are to secure a better climate future then we must identify how these shortcomings in climate legislation can be efficiently address. Only then does policy on a sufficient scale have a change of being passed. To make this happen the environmental movement need to unite behind a clear set of demands about what needs to change in our governments response to climate change. In the rest of this series we will explore the rest of the Climate Change Act and other climate legislation showing where such demands will be best focused.

By Louder than the Storm political lead, MacGregor Cox


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