Legal duties on climate change

The UK is a member of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC is the key forum which oversees international action to tackle climate change. The UNFCCC led the development and adoption of The Paris Agreement in 2015. A total of 160 countries have pledged to cut their emissions as part of this process, although more action is needed in order to meet the Paris Agreement’s aims of holding the increase in global average temperature rise to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C.

The UK’s pledge to reduce its emissions under the Paris Agreement was made as part of a joint pledge by members of the European Union (EU). EU Member States jointly agreed to a 2030 target of at least a 40% reduction in emissions below 1990 levels, supported by an EU-wide climate and energy package. This follows on from the 2020 package which aims to achieve a 20% reduction in emissions relative to 1990, a 20% energy efficiency improvement and a 20% share of renewables in energy consumption by 2020. Several major EU-wide measures to meet these targets have also been agreed which apply to the UK, such as the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS).

Through the 2008 Climate Change Act, the UK was the first country to introduce long-term, legally-binding national legislation to tackle climate change. The Act provides the UK with a legal framework including a 2050 target for emissions reductions, five-yearly ‘carbon budgets’ (limits on emissions over a set time period which act as stepping stones towards the 2050 target), and the development of a climate change adaptation plan.

Leaving the EU would change how UK carbon budgets are delivered: where policies previously agreed at EU level no longer apply or are weakened, new UK policies will need to replace them. But leaving the EU does not change the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the level of carbon budgets (which are set in UK law), or the duty on the UK Government to act to tackle climate change.