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ClientEarth Communications

11th February 2021

Climate accountability

What is the Climate Change Act?

Our new report calls on the UK Government to reinvigorate the Climate Change Act.

What is the Climate Change Act?

The Climate Change Act sets legally binding targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the UK by at least 80% by 2050, from 1990 levels. It became an Act of Parliament in 2008.

What does The Climate Change Act do?

The Act requires the Government to set legally binding emissions targets, called carbon budgets, every five years.

It also established an independent expert body, the Committee on Climate Change (the CCC), to advise Government on the level of those emissions targets and report to Parliament on progress made on reducing emissions.

What are carbon budgets?

The Act introduced carbon budgets, which put legally binding limits on the amount of greenhouse gases the UK can emit over a five-year period.

The UK is the first country to set legally binding carbon budgets.

They are meant to set out a cost-effective path to achieving longer term climate targets. So far, five carbon budgets have been put into law that run up to 2032.

Budgetary periodYears CoveredCarbon budget
Average annual
reduction (cf.1990)
12008 – 123,018– 23%
22013 – 172,782– 29%
32018 – 222,544– 35%
42023 – 271,950– 50%
52028 – 321,765– 57%
62033 – 37Set by 30/06/21
2050159– 80%

What are carbon plans?

The first Carbon Plan was published by Government in 2009; the second was published in 2011. They set out detailed proposals and policies for meeting the carbon budgets.

A new plan is expected every five years following the last.

The Government committed themselves to updating the Carbon Plan annually, but no update has been published since 2011.

What does the Committee on Climate Change do?

The CCC advises the Government on setting and meeting the levels of carbon budgets. It monitors Government progress in reducing emissions and achieving carbon budgets.

The committee also conducts independent analysis into climate change science, economics and policy.

Who is responsible for implementing the Climate Change Act?

The Government departments that are charged with setting climate policy are the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

That said, all departments across the whole of Government should promote policies to reduce climate change, given the interconnected nature of the environment. The Department for Transport, for example, impacts heavily on the climate.

What is the legal context?

With the CCA, the UK is the first country to introduce long-tem legally-binding targets to tackle climate change. But we are also bound by other climate agreements and laws.

The European Union plays a significant role in international climate change processes. It has implemented several major measures to reduce the Union’s emissions, which the UK is still subject to whilst we remain a member.

On the world stage, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) sets out procedures for countries across the world to cooperate on climate change. The UNFCC’s Kyoto Protocol places binding obligations on countries, including the UK, to reduce emissions from greenhouse gases.

All nations under the UNFCC are now working on the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees Celsius once it enters into force.

More to explore