Green legislation: the Climate Change Act 2008

An early signatory of the Kyoto agreement, in April 1998, the UK government has long been concerned about climate change. Since Kyoto, the environmental lobby had been urging the government to give statutory weight to its targets for greenhouse gas and carbon emissions. The result was the Climate Change Act 2008, which established aggressive targets for emissions and created the Committee on Climate Change to monitor actual performance.

The challenge

The UK was an early signatory to the Kyoto Protocol in the 1990s. In 2005, the government commissioned a major review, the Stern Report, to assign an economic cost to the consequences of climate change. It was designed to establish the economic, as opposed to the scientific or environmental, case for action. At the same time, there was intense lobbying from environmental NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace for the government targets to be given statutory force.

The initiative

In 2006, the then Labour government laid out its climate change programme. Based on the recommendations of the Stern report, the government introduced the Draft Climate Change Bill in March 2007.

In November 2008, Parliament adopted the new Climate Change Act, with the broad support of all political parties. At the same time, it brought in the Energy Act the Planning Act, and the following year the Scottish Parliament introduced the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009. Add in the creation of a new Department for Energy and Climate Change in October 2008, and you have the most advanced climate change legislation in the world supported by “the institutional arrangements needed to meet its ambitious objectives”.

The Climate Change Act 2008 (“the CCA”) broke new institutional ground in at least three respects:

  • It set a legally binding long-term emission target for 2050, committing the UK to reducing emissions by at least 80 percent from the levels recorded in 1990.
  • “It put in place a framework through which the long-term target can be achieved. It commits the UK to a series of legally-binding five-year carbon budgets.”
  • It “established a new independent body, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which advises the government on carbon budgets and monitors progress in meeting them in an annual report”.

The public impact

By 2014, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were measured at 568.3 MtCO2e (million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent). This is a huge reduction compared to the 1990 levels of 809.4 MtCO2e in 1990, and in line with the UK’s targets. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emission was 467.5 MtCO2e in 2014, reduced from 597 MtCO2e in 1990. [1]

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.


Public Confidence Fair

Based on one of the questions in an Ipsos Globescan survey, the UK public’s concern about climate change had seen an upward trend from 2003 to 2006 but had decreased from then onwards. “In 2005, 44% of people stated they were very concerned about climate change. This declined to 28% in 2010. In the present survey [in 2015], only 18% of people stated they were very concerned about climate change. There was therefore a decreasing level of public concern at the time when the policy was proposed by the government and enacted by Parliament.

However, the public’s belief in the existence of climate change had returned to the 2005 level of roughly 90 percent by 2015, after dipping to about 70 percent in 2013. (The exact question was “As far as you know, do you think the world’s climate is changing, or not?”) The survey was carried out after the UK’s winter floods of 2013-14. [3]

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

In making the CCA a reality, there was support and participation from all the relevant stakeholders. Several NGOs, the major political parties and the business community supported the climate change mitigation proposal.

Although Friends of the Earth led the way, more than a hundred NGOs including Action Aid, CAFOD, The National Trust, Oxfam, the RSPB and the WWF came together as part of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition.

Views were also changing in the business community, where a number of business leaders were beginning to see a need for action – and wanted a degree of certainty for their long-term investment decisions.

According to John Cridland, Deputy Director General at the CBI at the time: “What really did it, in 2004 and early 2005, was the science. I think your average chief executive of a major company had a feeling in their gut [that] the UN scientists were right.” In the same year, a group of influential business leaders from companies including Shell, BP and HSBC wrote to Tony Blair calling for a transition to a low carbon economy.

Many NGOs and the Conservative party pressed the government to implement annual targets rather than the five-yearly budgets that were adopted.

Political Commitment Strong

The CCA was passed with an overwhelming majority, with MPs from treasury and opposition benches supporting it. Climate change regulation became part of the manifestoes published by all major political parties.

"When the [CCA] was passed, it was rightly promoted as a world-leading piece of legislation. One reason the Act was so ambitious was the high level of cross-party support it received.

“The second factor that helped bring about the turnaround was David Cameron’s election as Conservative Party leader in 2005 and his decision to use climate change as an issue with which to ‘decontaminate’ the Tory brand.” [2]


Clear Objectives Strong

The CCA aims to reduce GHGs in order to mitigate the risks of climate change. To achieve this, it has set specific targets in terms of time-bound emission reductions:

  • “To reduce GHG emissions by 34 per cent by 2020 against 1990 levels. [4]
  • To reduce GHG emissions by 60 per cent by 2030 against 1990 levels.
  • To reduce GHG emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 against 1990 levels.”

Evidence Fair

The CCA 2008 was the first national legislation of its kind in the world in terms of having legally binding emission reduction targets. However, the government, in its Draft Climate Change Bill of March 2007, was able to cite legal provisions already in place in California. “California has already introduced state-wide emissions limits [and] the EU has called for a 30% reduction in GHG emissions by 2020 in the context of a new international framework post-2012.” [5]

Also, the UK law is in agreement with the provisions provided in the Kyoto protocol. The proposed law in the UK is based on the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol and it aims to achieve the emission reduction targets agreed in the protocol. “Kyoto’s flexible mechanisms and the EU ETS are very important in terms of achieving emissions reductions at least cost, as well as providing a means of coordinating international action." [6]

Feasibility Strong

The government instituted an independent study to assess the economic cost of climate change on the UK economy. The Stern report forecast the cost of a climate change mitigation policy, thus answering the fiscal concerns.

Additionally, the CCA also created an independent authority, the CCC, to monitor the policy, thereby effectively tackling any human resources related concerns. “This expert body will advise on the optimum trajectory to 2050 by giving advice on the level of carbon budgets, on how much effort should be made in the UK and overseas and how much effort should be made by sectors of the economy covered by cap and trade schemes and by other sectors." [7]


Management Strong

The CCA has put in place an independent body, the CCC, which advises the government on emission reduction strategies and targets. This committee is made up of experts in the field, and the law requires that the government present the progress made in terms of the emission targets to Parliament

“Applying a transparent, evidence-based approach to setting and meeting budgets, the CCC helps to support the development of robust carbon strategies and increase the likelihood of meeting the ambitious emissions reduction targets it helps to set. The legal framework requires the discussion of CCC advice and its annual progress reports in parliament, lending the CCC considerable leverage to hold the government to account.” [8]

Measurement Strong

The policy includes a legally binding five-year emission targets. Therefore the measurement of greenhouse gas emissions is paramount to the policy and regularly measured and assessed, with the data influencing future policy decisions and providing information on whether the UK is on track to meet its targets.

The data is easily available on the UK government website, detailing how the carbon budget for the UK between 2008 and 2012 was 3,018 MtCO2e (million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent), and the UK only released 2,982 MtCO2e. [9]

Alignment Strong

The major stakeholder in making sure that UK was making steady progress in achieving significant reductions in greenhouse gas emission is the government. It has been instrumental in introducing new policies and, most importantly, adopting legally binding emission reduction targets. The aims of the CCA have been reiterated by successive governments – The 2010-15 coalition, which announced itself as ‘the greenest government ever’, and the present Conservative government.

There is a consensus across the major political parties throughout the United Kingdom. This is shared by business, as expressed by organisations such as the CBI. These actors were in line with the many environmental NGOs that lobbied for the CCA to be introduced.