A blueprint for change

The national Act that's inspiring a global effort on climate change

Both LSE's Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the UK's world-leading cliamte law, the Climate Change Act, celebrate their tenth anniversaries in 2018.

Sam Fankhauser


Professor Sam Fankhauser

Director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment

A pair of hands holding a globe

Back in November 2008, in the early days of the Grantham Research Institute, the UK government passed a world-first – the Climate Change Act, which included legally binding commitments to drastically reduce carbon emissions and manage the impacts of climate change. A decade on, much progress has already been made against the target, enshrined in the Act, of cutting emissions by at least 80 per cent compared to 1990 levels. Today the UK is a long way there: annual emissions were 43 per cent lower in 2017 than in 1990.

At the same time, the UK has busted the myth that cutting emissions will dent the economy. Whilst emissions have dropped 43 per cent, the UK economy has grown: GDP increased by 71 per cent over the same period. This means the UK now uses three times less carbon to produce a pound of GDP than in 1990.

Despite this we are already seeing the effects of climate change. The UK’s nine warmest years on record have occurred since 2000 and the risk of heatwaves is rising, as is the probability of flooding due to heavier rainfall and sea level rise along our coasts.

Demanding space on the agenda

As home to one of the world’s most pioneering climate laws, other countries have looked to the UK to learn how best to implement frameworks to tackle climate change domestically too. The increase in such laws has been exponential: our unique database on global climate change legislation, Climate Change Laws of the World, suggests that there are now around 1,500 climate laws worldwide; 139 of them are overarching frameworks like the UK Act. With such an explosion in interest in domestic climate change legislation, especially in the wake of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, we saw a clear opportunity to review progress on the Act in the UK, drawing out key experiences to inform domestic legislation in other countries.

The Paris Agreement is an international agreement to combat climate change. Its aim is to keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0 degrees above pre-industrial times and pursue efforts to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. There are 197 signatories, including the US which cannot legally withdraw from the Agreement until November 2020. Signatories pledge to cut emissions of greenhouse gases with pledges reviewed and scaled up every five years. Developed countries agree to help developing nations adapt to climate change by providing “climate finance”.

Talking to climate policy experts from across the political spectrum, including former civil servants, special advisers, government ministers, shadow ministers and backbench MPs, we identified the main success factors. An important part of the success of the Act, and vital to any domestic climate legislation, is that it has kept climate change on the UK’s agenda and maintained political consensus for action even in the most turbulent economic and political times.

Civil servants who shared their experiences with us in our research told us that mandatory reporting to Parliament on progress on climate targets “demands a slot on the agenda”. Setting long- and medium-term targets for emission reductions, in the form of carbon budgets is a key strength of the Climate Change Act. They define a clear but flexible path towards the UK’s long-term carbon objective, and are rigorously evidence-based thanks to the work of an independent advisory body – the Committee on Climate Change. This is another keystone to the implementation of a law like the Climate Change Act.

Towards a cleaner future

The urgency of action on climate change has never been clearer – but to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, countries must increase their ambition for climate action. The landmark deal relies on all countries signed up to make national pledges to cut their emissions, and to ratchet up their ambitions for climate action as time goes on, with a goal of holding down global temperature increases to “well below” 2.0 degrees. Yet pledges made so far under the Agreement are not yet sufficient to meet this goal. This year the process will begin to start increasing ambition around the world before 2020, when each country will make new pledges under the Agreement.

The UK is no exception. Despite the success of the Climate Change Act so far, our report has recommended that the government will need to accelerate emissions cuts to meet the targets set under the Act. There is also a need for reforms to more closely align UK policy with the Paris Agreement. We have recommended that the government need to put in place a “net zero emissions target”: that is, to set a date by when UK emissions will be balanced by the removal of carbon from the atmosphere, making the UK carbon-neutral. Soon after we published the report, the UK’s Minister of State for Climate Change and Industry announced that she will ask the Committee on Climate Change for advice on doing just that, placing the UK among a handful of countries to be looking towards a net-zero future, and the first G7 country to do so.

As we at the Institute look ahead to our next ten years, and with our research agenda firmly focused on how countries worldwide can implement the Paris Agreement, we hope our work will continue to contribute to tackling this global challenge.