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A legal duty to act

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 adapted to. 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 adapt to them. The CCC’s Adaptation 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. 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 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 adapting to its impacts, touches on all aspects of the economy. The Government has created a Cabinet Committee on Climate Change chaired by the Prime Minister. This is supported by subcommittee’s to ensure climate change decision making is across Government. It is for all government departments to include climate change in its thinking when making policy decisions. The two main UK government departments responsible for climate change are:

  • Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) – leading on policy for reducing emissions (mitigation)
    • DESNZ is responsible for ensuring secure energy and promoting action on climate change in the UK and internationally.

Devolved administrations

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 “Net Zero” emissions target of 2045. This includes a 56% reduction by 2020, 75% by 2030 and 90% by 2040 against the baseline. There is also a requirement to produce a Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme.
  • The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 introduces a duty on Welsh Government to develop carbon budgets for Wales, and to reduce emissions by at least 80% by 2050. Following the Committee’s advice in 2019, the Welsh Government will bring regulations to the Assembly in 2020 to amend the existing 2050 target and amend Wales’ interim targets and carbon budgets as necessary.
  • The Northern Ireland Executive, is developing a new Energy Strategy for Northern Ireland and will be writing to the Committee to ask for advice on how Northern Ireland could contribute better to UK targets for Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.