Press release: 7 September 2021

Global climate laws falling short on reducing emissions, ClientEarth report finds

Global climate laws are under delivering on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with net-zero goals, according to extensive research by ClientEarth, which sets out lessons for strengthening national legislation.

Following an in-depth analysis of climate laws across six jurisdictions, legal experts from the environmental organisation found that legislative efforts to enshrine commitments under the Paris Agreement are coming up short in driving steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

The report assessed laws in Finland, France, Mexico, Sweden, the UK and the Australian state of Victoria – all of which are designed to embed long-term, economy-wide emission reductions.

These first-generation laws are a critical tool in the fight against climate change, but ClientEarth lawyers concluded that there is room for improvement to ensure carbon neutrality.

Lawyers also mapped out how climate legislation can be strengthened to ensure new laws are more effective as a growing number of countries move to embed their net-zero targets into law.

ClientEarth lawyer Sophie Marjanac said: “For laws that break new ground, you expect teething problems – 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.”

Among the common pitfalls were 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 duties are split between various arms of government, or are imposed on the wrong department entirely.

ClientEarth lawyers recommend that the buck stops 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 the report, the laws examined are also marred by loopholes that undermine their key purpose. They fail to impose strong enough consequences on governments for failing to meet their obligations, raising accountability concerns.

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 showboating;
  • 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 accountability for policy progress, 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 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. The language used could be strengthened and clarified, for instance but replacing ‘should’ with ‘shall’;
  • 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.

Marjanac added: “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.

“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.”


Notes to editors:
  • ClientEarth’s report defined framework climate laws as legislation which seeks to set up an overarching national framework for achieving emissions reductions across multiple sectors over a decades-long timeframe.
  • It analysed: Climate Change Act 2008 (UK); General Law on Climate Change 2012 (Mexico); Climate Change Act 2015 (Finland); Energy Transition for Green Growth Act 2015 (France); Climate Act 2018 (Sweden); Climate Change Act 2017 (Victoria, Australia)
  • To address the commons flaws identified in those framework climate laws, the report sets out six key principles that should form the foundations of new legislation:
    • 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.
  • Access the 'Navigating Net-Zero: Global Lessons in Climate Law-making' here.
About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.