What has the UK climate law achieved and where next?

The UK's climate law came into force in 2008. Professor Neil Carter summarises its impact and suggests how the UK must build on it to curb global warming.
  Published:  08 Aug 2018    |      8 minute read

What did the UK Climate Act set out to do? 

In the years leading up to 2008 a remarkable cross-party political consensus developed in the UK: that climate change demands attention from political leaders.

This consensus came about as a result of compelling scientific evidence about dangerous climate change and emerging evidence of the huge economic cost of inaction. The escalation of political concern was spurred on by civil society campaigning and resulted in the Climate Change Act 2008. Passing the Act enabled the UK government to claim the moral high-ground globally on this fast-emerging global issue. 

The Climate Act aimed to increase ambition and ensure that ambition was met

Before the Act became law the UK was struggling to meet its very unambitious emission reduction targets. The Act set a scientifically informed, long-term target of an 80% cut in emissions by 2050, which is legally binding. In other words, it aimed to increase ambition and to ensure that ambition was met. 

Carbon budgets

Underpinning the long-term target are carbon budgets. These set a statutory limit on the amount of greenhouse gases that can be released from all sectors of the UK economy over a 5-year period. There are always 3 carbon budgets in place at any one time. These provide short- and medium-term (up to 15 years) targets to ensure the government has introduced the policies necessary to keep the UK on track to meet its long-term goal. The government provides annual reports to parliament on progress in meeting the carbon budget.

This long-term framework is also designed to ensure that action on climate change is not derailed by changes in government. So too is the independent Committee on Climate Change. It provides expert advice to the government on the carbon budgets and on the policies needed to meet them. The Committee also monitors progress on emissions reductions and climate adaptation policies.  

In addition to the UK Act there are Climate Change Acts in Wales and Scotland, since action is needed at the devolved level as well.  

What has happened to UK emissions since the Act? 

The UK has successfully reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 43% since 1990 and delivered on its first 2 carbon budgets. These early budgets were met pretty easily because there were lots of low-hanging fruit. 

But the later targets will need stronger and more determined action by governments at all levels. Indeed, the Committee on Climate Change says that while the UK will meet the 3rd budget it is not on track to meet the 4th and 5th carbon budgets (a 51% cut by 2025 compared to 1990, and then 57% by 2030).  

Can we attribute emissions cuts to the Climate Act? 

The most significant emissions cuts have occurred in the power sector. Here emissions fell by 59% between 2008 and 2017 as the share of low-carbon generation rose from 20% to 52%. That rise came from the rapid growth of offshore and onshore wind and solar benefiting from government measures to support renewable energy and to close down coal-fired power stations. These measures were required by EU legislation, notably the EU Renewables Directive. But the existence of the Act and the progress reports of the Committee on Climate Change have also been an important driver for change.

In short, EU and UK legislation has been mutually reinforcing. This suggests the Act will become even more crucial in keeping the UK on track when the country is no longer subject to progressive EU climate legislation.  

What changes in UK policy has the Act led to? 

Since 2008 policies intended to reduce emissions across a wide range of sectors have been implemented. These could all be put down as a direct, or indirect, result of the Act.

Obvious successes include helping transform the power sector, for example through feed-in-tariffs for renewables – although these have since been slashed for onshore wind and solar. And there has been huge investment in the ‘contracts for difference’ reform of the electricity markets, which has recently seen offshore wind undercutting gas generation.

As noted above, UK membership of the EU has also influenced changes (particularly the renewables target). 

Some policies have not been effective. Perhaps the most notable was the coalition government’s Green Deal to improve domestic energy efficiency. This was dropped because of its poor uptake among householders.  

How is life in the UK different as a result of the Climate Act? 

One obvious change is that the UK has moved away from coal-fired power stations. This has reduced emissions and improved air quality. That said, air quality will really improve when genuine progress towards decarbonisation of the transport sector starts to kick in. This will be especially pronounced with the growth of electric vehicles – assuming they're powered from low-carbon energy sources. 

In politics, it is also important to identify what hasn’t happened. Friends of the Earth’s Big Ask campaign played a key role in bringing about the Climate Change Act. One major reason was its success in forging a remarkable political consensus that action on climate change is necessary. 

Thus, 463 MPs voted for the Act and only 3 against and this consensus supporting the Act still holds. Yes, there has been opposition from the right-wing media, UKIP and many Conservative backbenchers to some climate policies, such as onshore wind farms and what David Cameron called ‘green crap’ – levies on domestic fuel bills that subsidise renewable energy. But these efforts to break the consensus have resulted in only the odd wobble from party leaders. That is vital because when we look to countries like the USA we see the danger of allowing the climate change issue to become polarized.  

But we do need to return to that political interlude around 2006-08 when all the parties were competing to be greener than each other on climate change. One positive sign is the green rhetoric of Michael Gove – which suggests this may start to happen as the parties vie for the youth vote. 

How has business responded to the Climate Act? 

One argument deployed during the passage of the Act was that it gave long-term certainty and stability for business. This would enable them to plan and encourage investment in green technologies and practices.

This has proved to be the case in key areas such as renewable energy and the automotive sector. The Act, and climate change itself, has spurred innovation and start-ups. Some of the most dynamic thinking and action on climate change now comes from the business sector. Crucially, the need to meet the greenhouse gas emission targets is now embedded in the forward thinking of business trade associations like the CBI and many industries.  

Of course, there are still some fossil fuel dinosaurs who seek to extract every last ounce of coal, gas and oil to burn. Contemporary enthusiasm for fracking is a prime example of this backward thinking. But major fossil fuel corporations such as Shell and BP are also planning for a low-carbon future: BP recently purchased the UK’s biggest car-charging network; Shell's chief executive has called on the government to bring forward the 2040 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles to help companies make investment decisions.  

How has local government responded to the Climate Act? 

Local government’s ability to respond has been stifled though the swingeing cuts local authorities have faced since 2011. These have led to significant reductions in the number of staff with dedicated climate change responsibilities and, for example, led to substantial cuts in bus provision. 

Without more resources progress is likely to stall in those areas where local authorities have significant responsibility, such as waste, local transport and building standards enforcement.   

Where have we seen the biggest changes – and where do we need more action? 

The biggest recent reductions in emissions have been in the power and waste sectors. But there is scope for further progress if the government were to restore the subsidies and support for onshore wind, solar and home insulation that it removed after the Conservatives won the 2015 general election. 

Emissions trends in other sectors have largely flat-lined. Transport – now responsible for the largest share of emissions – is a major culprit. Encouraging signs include the rapid global growth in electric vehicles (albeit from a very low base), corporate investment in electric vehicles and infrastructure and the UK government commitment to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles in 2040.

However, while the positive impact of the so-called Dieselgate scandal on the market for diesel cars is good for air quality, it is hampering efforts to reduce carbon emissions because petrol engines use more fuel. 

Meanwhile the decision to approve a third runway at Heathrow will make it even more difficult to control emissions from the aviation sector. 

The housing sector also needs much greater focus. The government’s Green Deal energy efficiency programme failed, and most home heating in the UK is provided by fossil fuels. 

What influence has the Climate Act had beyond the UK? 

After passing the Climate Change Act the UK government lobbied other governments across the world to adopt similar legislation. Friends of the Earth worked with the UK government in spreading the word across Europe. Many Friends of the Earth sister groups also launched campaigns. 

Since the pioneering UK Act was passed there have been many new climate laws enacted around the world at all levels of government. The UK can’t claim credit for all of these, but it has been influential: those in Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and Finland were all closely modelled on the UK Act. 

The UK Climate Act has also enabled the UK to be seen positively as a leader in international negotiations and at EU level.

What needs to change to make the Act continually useful? 

The Act will need to be updated soon in line with the Paris Agreement target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C (the current 80% 2050 reduction target assumes a rise of 2°C).

Otherwise the main problems lie in implementation rather than the Act itself. The government needs to ensure that there is genuine buy-in across all ministries to ensure that non-power sectors, such as transport and heating, deliver substantive emission reductions. It also needs to think more seriously about adaptation in areas like flooding by, for example, stopping building houses on flood plains.  

And the government needs to be more ambitious and consistent in its approach. The Clean Growth Strategy looks good on paper, but the government needs to introduce policies to deliver it. 

In its 2018 progress report to parliament, the Committee on Climate Change emphasised the need for regulations, such as energy efficiency standards in new homes, to be properly enforced. It called for policy continuity and criticised the government for junking initiatives promoting zero-carbon homes and energy efficiency in buildings. The report called for significant investment in infrastructure such as electric vehicles and carbon capture and storage. It also identified low-hanging fruit that the government could address immediately, such as increasing woodland planting and substantially boosting recycling of food waste. 

The Climate Change Act will become even more important after Britain leaves the EU. The EU has been a key driver of UK climate policy, so the Act will play an even more important role in keeping the UK on track. Conversely, there is a real danger that, after Brexit, without that external driving force there will be less political  pressure on the UK government to implement the requirements of the Act. 

Professor Neil Carter, Department of Politics, University of York