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A policy brief summary of this report (8pp) is also available. 

The UK Climate Change Act became law in November 2008 and is one of the earliest comprehensive framework laws on climate change globally. This report summarises lessons from the Act, for the UK and other countries, on how climate change legislation is best structured to be effective.

The authors ask what procedural, institutional and legislative arrangements have been successful? Where have expectations not been met? Is the Act still fit for purpose in a post-Paris Agreement world? What political challenges to the Act might arise in the future?

The assessment is based on interviews with civil servants, special advisers, government and shadow ministers, backbench Members of Parliament, policy commentators and industry representatives. Their responses are complemented with insights from the literature, the authors’ own experience in engaging with UK climate policy, and conversations with experts in UK policy and in climate change governance.

Key findings

The experience of the UK’s Climate Change Act since 2008 provides lessons for climate law-making that apply internationally:

  • A comprehensive framework law is an essential tool to coordinate and advance climate action with respect to both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilience.
  • A good climate law contains statutory targets, assigns clear duties and responsibilities and provides clarity about the long-term direction of travel.
  • Economy-wide, multi-year targets, set well in advance, help to define a clear, yet flexible path towards the long-term climate objective.
  • A strong independent body is critically important to ensure consistent policy delivery and evidence-based decision-making.

The Climate Change Act has been instrumental in advancing climate action over the past decade but reform will be needed if the UK is to meet its international climate obligations: 

  • The introduction of the Act and its carbon budgets has helped to reduce emissions, particularly in the power sector, while the UK economy has continued to grow.
  • Although the Act is technically consistent with the Paris Agreement, it will probably need supplementing by 2020, for instance by including a target for achieving ‘net zero’ emissions.
  • New safeguards are needed to strengthen the ability to hold the government to account on the Climate Change Act. For instance, the Act should be amended to create a statutory response time for the government to publish its carbon plans, to avoid undue delays.
  • The consensus for action on climate change in the UK has held but buy-in across government departments is too uneven. All parts of government must be fully committed to implementation of the Act as the UK moves into a more challenging phase of emissions reductions.
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