The Climate Change Act 2008 is the basis for the UK’s approach to tackling and responding to climate change. It requires that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are reduced and that climate change risks are prepared for. The Act also establishes the framework to deliver on these requirements.
The Act supports the UK’s commitment to urgent international action to tackle climate change.
How the Climate Change Act works
Through the Climate Change Act, the UK government has set a target to significantly reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and a path to get there. The Act also established the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to ensure that emissions targets are evidence-based and independently assessed.
In addition, the Act requires the Government to assess the risks and opportunities from climate change for the UK, and to prepare for them. The CCC’s Adaptation Sub-Committee advises on these climate change risks and assesses progress towards tackling them.
The 2050 target
The Climate Change Act commits the UK government by law to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 100% of 1990 levels (net zero) by 2050. This includes reducing emissions from the devolved administrations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), which currently account for about 20% of the UK’s emissions.
The 100% target was based on advice from the CCC’s 2019 report, ‘Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming’.
The path to 2050: ‘Carbon budgets’
The Climate Change Act requires the government to set legally-binding ‘carbon budgets’ to act as stepping stones towards the 2050 target. A carbon budget is a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the UK over a five-year period. Budgets must be set at least 12 years in advance to allow policy-makers, businesses and individuals enough time to prepare.
The CCC advises on the appropriate level of each carbon budget. The budgets are designed to reflect a cost-effective way of achieving the UK’s long-term climate change objectives.
The first five carbon budgets have been put into legislation and run up to 2032.
Once a carbon budget has been set, the Climate Change Act places an obligation on the Government to prepare policies to ensure the budget is met.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC)
The CCC was set up to ensure emissions targets are set based on expert independent assessment of the evidence and to monitor the UK’s progress towards meeting the targets. The Committee must:
- Advise the government on the appropriate level for emissions targets and how these can be met.
- Report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the further progress needed to meet future targets.
- Publish its advice and reasons for that advice.
Under the Infrastructure Act 2015, the CCC has an additional duty to advise the UK government on the implications of exploiting onshore petroleum, including shale gas, for meeting UK carbon budgets. The CCC provided its first advice on onshore petroleum in 2016. The Government and national authorities may also request specific advice from the Committee on an ad-hoc basis.
Preparing for climate change
The Committee includes the Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC), which scrutinises and advises on the government’s programme for adapting to climate change.
The Climate Change Risk Assessment and National Adaptation Programme
The Climate Change Act requires the UK Government to produce a UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) every five years. The CCRA assesses current and future risks to and opportunities for the UK from climate change.
In response to the CCRA, the Climate Change Act also requires the UK government to produce a National Adaptation Programme (NAP). The NAP covers England, while the devolved administrations produce their own programmes and policies.
The Act also gives powers to the UK Government to require certain organisations to report on how they are adapting to climate change. This is called the Adaptation Reporting Power.
Read more about government policy on adapting to climate change.
Who is responsible for climate change policies?
Tackling the causes of climate change, and preparing for its impacts, touches on all aspects of the economy. Therefore several government departments provide input into climate change policy.
The two main UK government departments responsible for collating this input are:
- Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) – leading on policy for reducing emissions (mitigation)
- Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) – leading on domestic adaptation policy (adaptation)
BEIS is responsible for ensuring secure energy and promoting action on climate change in the UK and internationally.
Defra is responsible for developing the National Adaptation Programme to address the risks set out in the most recent UK Climate Change Risk Assessment.
The governments and assemblies of the devolved administrations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland):
- create climate change policy for their devolved area.
- help to implement UK-wide policies.
As well as being covered by the Climate Change Act, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have separate climate change policies. For example:
- The Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 commits Scotland to a 42% reduction in emissions by 2020 and annual reductions between 2010 and 2050. The Scottish Government has committed to introduce a new, more ambitious Climate Change Bill. In June 2017, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform announced proposed new emission reduction targets of 56% by 2020 and 90% by 2050 (compared with 1990 levels). There is also a requirement to produce a Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme.
- Wales passed the Environment (Wales) Act in 2016, which provides for the setting of emission reduction targets to 2050, including at least an 80% reduction (compared with 1990 levels) in 2050, and five-yearly carbon budgets. The first two carbon budgets (from 2016-2020 and 2021-2025) are due to be set in 2018.
- The Northern Ireland Executive, in its Programme for Government (2011-2015), has set a target of continuing to work towards reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 35% (compared with 1990 levels) by 2025.
Select ‘carbon budgets’ or ‘adaptation’ on our publications page to read about the Committee’s views on current government climate change policies.