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ClientEarth Communications

7th September 2021

Global climate laws falling short on reducing emissions

ClientEarth research shows climate laws are under delivering – and sets out ways to fix them

As the climate crisis intensifies, more countries are passing strong national climate laws that impose a legal obligation on government to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Such laws embed climate action into a country’s national legislation, ensuring accountability, stability and also incentives to meet net zero targets as governments align with their international commitments under the Paris Agreement.

But not all laws are equal, and new research shows many have room for improvement.

ClientEarth lawyers have undertaken an extensive review of climate laws around the world, assessing legislation in Finland, France, Mexico, Sweden, the UK and the Australian state of Victoria.

We conducted this world-first assessment to determine whether these ‘first generation’ climate laws are delivering greenhouse gas reductions in line with net-zero goals and, if not, how they can be improved.

Our lawyers stressed that governments must be applauded for their ambition in enacting climate laws. But like any legislation that breaks new ground, there have been challenges in implementation.

The report highlights the best ways to address these difficulties to ensure the laws are effective in driving steep emissions reductions across the economy.

For laws that break new ground, it’s expected that teething issues will arise – but there is much to learn from the successes and mistakes made in these pioneering efforts - Sophie Marjanac, ClientEarth lawyer.
Key findings from the framework laws

ClientEarth lawyers highlighted issues including:

  • France’s binding targets extend to municipalities and large private businesses, imposing requirements on investors to disclose the climate impact of their portfolios. There are concerns though that gaps and ambiguities in the law make enforcement confusing, and have prompted accusations of political showcasing;
  • The UK Act requires government to set legally binding emissions reduction targets every five years, and publish a progress report outlining a pathway to achieve its carbon budget. However, banking and borrowing mechanisms provide flexibility to relax these targets, which has proved controversial;
  • Finland has made laudable efforts to improve external accountability pathways, but remains caught between two non-binding carbon neutrality targets. Avenues for meaningful enforcement are too ad-hoc and tardy to be effective, which could be addressed by imposing clear duties on government to meet interim targets;
  • Victoria, Australia, is a good example of how interim targets should be mandated to support increasingly more ambitious and science-aligned reduction commitments over time. This could be further strengthened by establishing a legally binding duty to achieve those targets, and by aligning the government’s emissions reduction pledges;
  • Sweden’s law effectively guards against the potential for climate action to be neglected following a change in government by requiring that climate policy is determined in the year following national elections. It could be strengthened by remedying the use of unclear and precatory language, such as “shall” instead of “should”;
  • Mexico’s aspirational emissions reduction targets are commendable, aiming for a 22% reduction by 2030 and 50% by 2050. To help achieve them, it should ensure these targets are legally binding and include sector-specific provisions to improve accountability.
Common pitfalls in existing laws

Some of the problem areas in current legislation include the lack of ‘hard’ legally binding interim targets, over complexity, delayed implementation, and a failure to monitor progress with the regularity demanded by the acceleration of climate instability.

Further challenges result when enforcement duties are split between various arms of government, or are imposed on the wrong section entirely. Our lawyers recommend that the buck should stop with the highest level of government, with significant involvement of the treasury or equivalent department as the overseer of the nation’s budget.

According to our report, the laws are also marred by loopholes that undermine their key purpose. They fail to impose strong enough consequences on governments when they do not to meet their obligation – raising accountability concerns.

“For framework climate laws to properly incentivise and enforce the transition to a low-carbon future, they need to be better integrated with environmental policy,” said ClientEarth lawyer Sophie Marjanac.

“They need to make clear who is in the driving seat, with duties and accountability imposed on the right decision-makers across government, and clear targets for the next five years.

“And they need to avoid creating silos across departments. By failing to work together effectively there is greater risk these laws will become a political tool to buy conscience, rather than addressing the scale and urgency of the crisis we face.”

Key principles for smart climate laws

Our report sets out six framework recommendations that should form the basis of smart climate laws:

  • Integration of environmental protection requirements into all other areas of government policy-making to promote sustainable development;
  • Balance of environmental, economic and social concerns to protect the environment for future generations;
  • Protection of those whose livelihoods are affected by the transition to a low carbon economy;
  • Prioritisation of efficiency in energy demand and supply;
  • Implementation of climate law in consistency with national human rights legislation and treaties; and,
  • Meeting mitigation goals and adaptation needs in ways that work with nature to produce significant benefits for people, the climate and biodiversity.

Sophie said: “For laws that break new ground, it’s expected that teething issues will arise – but there is much to learn from the successes and mistakes made in these pioneering efforts.

“The world needs strong climate laws to accelerate action on global warming. These six jurisdictions set an example for ambition, now they must raise it by improving clarity and enforcement.”