Celebrating 10 years of the UK Climate Change Act: an influential law beyond its borders

IIED director Andrew Norton says the UK's Climate Change Act provides a clear and ambitious framework for addressing climate change, and says it can be a model for other nations for turning the Paris Agreement into national action.

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Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022
26 November 2018
The UK government has warned that flooding is likely to become more frequent as the country’s climate changes (Photo: Dachlan, Creative Commons via Flickr)

The UK government has warned that flooding is likely to become more frequent as the country’s climate changes (Photo: Dachalan, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This Monday (26 November), the UK marks 10 years as the first country to adopt a law on climate change.

As countries seek to fulfil their responsibilities under the Paris Agreement on climate change, many are looking to develop measures that set out their long-term vision to achieve this and provide coherent action across all levels and sectors.

While it is true that the UK Climate Change Act contains specific measures tailored to the UK, as the first law of its kind, it holds many lessons for national climate laws around the world.

Often, national climate change legislation comprises fragments of related regulations, or a mixture of laws addressing individual issues such as energy, pollution, transport and land use. But what marks this act out as an important model for other countries is that it was drafted specifically to address this problem and addresses climate change mitigation and adaptation through a coherent and ambitious framework.

With a long-term goal to cut all UK greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, relative to 1990 levels, it set the country on a strong course. Not only does it combine long-term targets with coordinated short-term actions based on adopting pre-agreed but flexible carbon budgets every five years, it also keeps the act and its actions relevant by requiring regular monitoring and review.

Held to account

The act’s five-year cycles of adaptation programmes ensures the impacts of climate change and associated risks are taken into account in decision making by both the public and private sectors.

The establishment of the Climate Change Committee, an independent advisory body with clear roles and responsibilities, holds the government to account and a judiciary review for any infringements. Importantly, it reports to parliament every year on the extent to which the government is on track to meet the carbon budgets, and biannually on adaptation progress.

It also requires the government to respond. This regular reporting to parliament and the public ensures transparency and accountability of progress and keeps climate policy on the agenda. Other countries, such as Pakistan and Mexico, have since established similar bodies.

Ten years on, it is essential that the UK Climate Change Act be further strengthened and updated, in line with all recent developments, not least of which is the Paris Agreement. Like all signatories, the UK needs to include a target for achieving ‘net zero’ emissions by mid-century so that the agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C, echoed in the recent IPCC Special Report, can be achieved.

To this end, it is necessary that all parts of the government be fully committed to implementing the act as the UK moves into a more challenging phase of emission reductions. Also, any amendment to the current act needs to be well woven into other realms of national legislation and social policies to ensure they work together.

Climate change laws are no longer uncommon in the developed world – Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Russia and South Korea have all passed similar legislation. But laws with concrete greenhouse gas reduction targets remain rare among developing countries, where lawmakers struggle to balance the need to reduce emissions with economic development and poverty eradication goals.

LDCs: fewer laws but leading the way

The most prominent group of countries that IIED currently works with, the least developed countries (LDCs), tend to have fewer climate-related laws and policies overall and fewer comprehensive frameworks in place due to a lack of coordinated responses to tackle climate change and severe resource limitations. The shift to introducing climate change legislation is slow and addressing climate change in these countries is still very much policy-focused as opposed to law-based.

However, in their leadership efforts to address climate change, LDCs have put forward ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and are taking equally ambitious measures for on-the-ground actions, such as the LDC Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Initiative for Sustainable Development and the LDC Initiative for Effective Adaptation and Resilience.

National legislation plays a key role in the successful implementation of national climate goals and countries’ ability to meet the Paris Agreement. Achieving its long-term goals, including the global temperature target, depends on how successful countries are in implementing their NDCs and long-term low-greenhouse gas emission development strategies.

Ten years on the UK Climate Change Act still has a lot to offer. It reminds us that the Paris Agreement is also a product of country action. It is an example of a clear law and a critical tool for delivering climate change targets in a comprehensive and a coordinated manner.

This blog was originally published by Climate Home.

About the author

Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022

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