The UK was the first country in the world to set itself long-term, legally binding targets to reduce carbon emissions. The 2008 Climate Change Act commits the UK to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. It puts in place a series of five-year ‘carbon budgets’ and creates an independent adjudication body to ensure the country is on track to achieve them.
Energy represents a third of UK emissions - largely from burning coal and gas to generate electricity - so the Act has had a profound effect on UK energy policy. Alongside European legislation, it has prompted government legislation aimed at increasing the proportion of electricity sourced from renewable power and nuclear power.
The Climate Change Act came into being during a period of rising awareness of climate change. In 2004, for example, chief scientist Sir David King had labelled climate change “a greater threat than terrorism”. In 2006, the Stern Review highlighted the economic benefits of reducing emissions.
Between 2005 and 2007 a coalition of civil society groups led by Friends of the Earth and including the RSPB, the National Trust and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes campaigned for a new climate change law. The Conservatives, headed up by new leader David Cameron, took up the call.
The House of Commons passed the bill on 28 October 2008 by an overwhelming margin of 463-3. The 80 per cent target was picked to be compatible with international efforts to avoid dangerous climate change. The Act established the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) as the government’s statutory advisor.
The CCC has a central role of recommending 'carbon budgets' – the maximum amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted in successive five-year periods, if the government is to stick to the long-term target. The government decides whether to agree to the CCC's recommendations. Once the budgets are set, it can only change them under very limited circumstances - if there are significant changes to the science of climate change, or to international or European law.
In the years since the climate change act was passed, many other countries have followed suit, although few have introduced such stringent legislation. A 2014 audit of climate legislation found 62 of 66 major countries now have a 'flagship law' serving as a "comprehensive, unifying basis for climate change policy".
Change Act 2008 2008 CHAPTER 27 An Act to set a target for the year 2050 for the reduction of targeted greenhouse gas emissions; to provide for a system of carbon budgeting; to establish a Committee on Climate Change; to confer powers to establish trading schemes for the purpose of limiting greenhouse gas emissions or encouraging activities that reduce such emissions or remove greenhouse gas from the atmosphere; to make provision about adaptation to climate change; to confer powers to make schemes for providing financial incentives to produce less domestic waste and to recycle more of what is produced; to make provision about the collection of household waste; to confer powers to make provision about charging for single use carrier bags; to amend the provisions of the Energy Act 2004 about renewable transport fuel obligations; to make provision about carbon emissions reduction targets; to make other provision about climate change; and for connected purposes. [26th November 2008] E IT ENACTED by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—
PART 1 CARBON TARGET AND BUDGETING The target for 2050 1 The target for 2050 (1) It is the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline. (2) “The 1990 baseline” means the aggregate amount of— (a) net UK emissions of carbon dioxide for that year, and (b) net UK emissions of each of the other targeted greenhouse gases for the year that is the base year for that gas.
Carbon budgeting 4 Carbon budgets (1) It is the duty of the Secretary of State— (a) to set for each succeeding period of five years beginning with the period 2008-2012 (“budgetary periods”) an amount for the net UK carbon account (the “carbon budget”), and (b) to ensure that the net UK carbon account for a budgetary period does not exceed the carbon budget. (2) The carbon budget for a budgetary period may be set at any time after this Part comes into force, and must be set— (a) for the periods 2008-2012, 2013-2017 and 2018-2022, before 1st June 2009; (b) for any later period, not later than 30th June in the 12th year before the beginning of the period in question.
5 Level of carbon budgets (1) The carbon budget— (a) for the budgetary period including the year 2020, must be such that the annual equivalent of the carbon budget for the period is at least 26% lower than the 1990 baseline; (b) for the budgetary period including the year 2050, must be such that the annual equivalent of the carbon budget for the period is lower than the 1990 baseline by at least the percentage specified in section 1 (the target for 2050); (c) for the budgetary period including any later year specified by order of the Secretary of State, must be such that the annual equivalent of the carbon budget for the period is— (i) lower than the 1990 baseline by at least the percentage so specified, or (ii) at least the minimum percentage so specified, and not more than the maximum percentage so specified, lower than the 1990 baseline. (2) The “annual equivalent”, in relation to the carbon budget for a period, means the amount of the carbon budget for the period divided by the number of years in the period. (3) An order under this section is subject to affirmative resolution procedure. (4) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a) there shall be left out of account— (a) so much of the carbon budget for the budgetary period including the year 2020 as the Secretary of State may determine relates to targeted greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide, and (b) so much of the 1990 baseline as is attributable to targeted greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide.
6 Amendment of target percentages (1) The Secretary of State may by order amend— (a) the percentage specified in section 5(1)(a); (b) any percentage specified under section 5(1)(c). (2) That power may only be exercised— (a) if it appears to the Secretary of State that there have been significant developments in— (i) scientific knowledge about climate change, or (ii) European or international law or policy, that make it appropriate to do so, or (b) in connection with the making of— (i) an order under section 24 (designation of further greenhouse gases as targeted greenhouse gases), or (ii) regulations under section 30 (emissions from international aviation or international shipping). (3) The developments in scientific knowledge referred to in subsection (2)(a) are— (a) in relation to the first exercise of the power conferred by this section in relation to the percentage specified in section 5(1)(a), developments since June 2000 (the date of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s 22nd Report, “Energy - the Changing Climate”); (b) in relation to the first exercise of the power conferred by this section in relation to any percentage specified under section 5(1)(c), developments since the evidential basis for the order setting that percentage was established; (c) in relation to a subsequent exercise of any of those powers, developments since the evidential basis for the previous exercise was established.
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