Climate Change Act: 10 years on, the stakes are even higher

The UK’s Climate Change Act became the world’s first law to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Now the government is in danger of undoing all the good work.
By Oliver Hayes    |      27 Nov 2018    |      5 min

A version of this article was first published by The Independent on 26 November.

10 years ago, hundreds of thousands of people made it clear that inaction on climate change was unacceptable. They got behind Friends of the Earth's campaign for a climate change law – and the rest was history.

Climate heroes

Activists with the bit between their teeth presented politicians with a draft bill on cutting emissions across the entire economy.

The bill’s beauty was its simplicity: a law to compel current and future governments to cut greenhouse gases by a little bit year on year.

Headline music acts such as Radiohead and Razorlight, and acting luminaries including Jude Law and Gillian Anderson, helped push the issue into the mainstream. It was effective because it was bold. As a political-campaign achievement, it was remarkable.

Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead) performing an acoustic set at The Big Ask Live climate change benefit gig at Koko, Camden.
Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead) performing at The Big Ask Live benefit gig
Credit: Hugh Macdonald

What became known as The Big Ask campaign persuaded MPs to take climate change seriously.

The parliamentary consensus was remarkable, if not unprecedented. Only 3 MPs opposed the final bill. And so, the UK’s Climate Change Act became the world’s first law to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It was swiftly imitated by governments around the world.

UK CO2 emissions have since fallen by an impressive 43%. But progress is stalling. The government’s official advisors now warn that the UK is off track to meet future targets.

To climate zeros?

The truth is our ministers are failing us – by relentlessly pursuing fracking, granting airport expansion, slashing insulation programmes, and faltering in support for renewable energy.

If they carry on, we won’t be able to meet our own emissions targets in the next 10 years, let alone stop runaway climate change.

But there is just enough time to get back on track.

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A chance to make history again

The policy solutions, while ambitious, are clear. And it's far from being a programme of sacrifice: real leadership would help build a safer, cleaner, fairer, and healthier world.

An accelerated transition from fossil-fuelled transport, for example, will help us fight the air pollution health crisis that cuts short 36,000 lives annually in the UK.

Climate action will help save our wildlife

UK forests and forest soils are already a significant store of carbon. But the UK is among the least forested countries in Europe.

Restoring and enhancing these habitats should be a major priority. A happy side effect would greater protection for our struggling wildlife, and better access to nature for many more people.

And reduce our energy bills

There is a challenge in moving away from gas-powered central heating, complicated by the government’s fixation on fracking. But with new technologies emerging and an emphasis on insulating homes, it can be done.

Nobody loses in this scenario: bills come down, jobs are created, older homes are made habitable. Illness and yes, winter deaths are reduced.

The public gets it, ministers don't

Importantly, public support is high. Polling from Client Earth shows a majority of the British public agree with not just immediate and urgent action, but even litigation on climate change.

People get it, ministers seemingly don’t.

The proposed Heathrow expansion would send aviation emissions soaring. Instead of addressing head-on the frequent flights that a small minority of the population takes, the transport secretary this month announced a new air route between Heathrow and Cornwall.

This is indicative of the government’s priorities.

The IPCC, the global body that objectively assesses climate impact and advises world governments, recently updated its research. The top line is that we can contain climate breakdown – but not under a business-as-usual, which has failed all but the wealthiest.

Going carbon neutral

The UK can be a net-zero emissions economy – that means if you release emissions, you suck an equivalent amount out of the atmosphere – by 2045.

The key to net zero is the government backing up its claims of climate leadership with stronger, more ambitious policy.

If you think the year 2045 is futuristic, it’s 27 years away. Twenty-seven years ago, in 1991, Terminator 2 and Silence of the Lambs were the cinema draws, and who doesn’t remember Everything I Do, the perennially chart-topping Bryan Adams belter with the electric guitar that needed no power. Twenty-seven years ago feels recent – 27 years hence isn’t far away.

Time aside, climate breakdown comes at a devastating cost to people and wildlife. UK communities are already on the frontline of climate chaos. From devastating floods in Yorkshire, to wildfires near Manchester, to homes crumbling into the sea in Norfolk – all are worsened by our warming world.

Here and globally, it’s the most vulnerable people paying the highest price.

And so, on the 10-year anniversary of the Climate Change Act, it’s clear that these are vows that need renewing. It remains feasible to limit global warming to 1.5°.

A faster transition towards a clean, sustainable economy is evidently worth it; the future of life on the planet also depends on it. The UK used to lead, we can again.

We're pressuring the government to do everything it can to protect us against climate change. Please add your voice.