Celebrating the Climate Change Act

26 Oct 2018

Last week we hosted an event to celebrate the Climate Change Act. Baroness Bryony Worthington who was instrumental in the development of the act, and Matthew Bell, previously Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, provided insights into how the act came about and what makes it so effective.

Watch the video and read about the event below.

Watch the video of the event


How the act came about

Passed into law ten years ago, the legislation was developed shortly after the millennium, at a time when people were sensitive to the issue of climate change. A campaign, led by Friends of the Earth calling for new climate legislation, capitalised on this public sentiment. Such was the groundswell of feeling that Thom Yorke of Radiohead called Bryony Worthington asking ‘what he could do to help’.

Whilst it had been thought it would take a couple of years to get the commitment to develop new legislation, it actually took less than a year. Lawyers said it couldn’t be done, but David Miliband then head DEFRA, with lots of political currency, pushed it through cabinet.

An economist was commissioned to work on a top down method to managing carbon emissions, an approach called carbon budgeting. The aim was to develop a mechanism to speak to government in a treasury friendly way, giving the problem an economic overlay. Establishing a long-term target was central to what was required; the end point was fixed, as were three consecutive carbon budgets. 

Three key strengths of the act

One of the strengths of the act was that it places time at the centre of action, providing a mechanism to translate long-term thinking into short-term action act. It provides a regular annual drumbeat, exerting continuous pressure for action regardless of the political winds of change.

This hardwiring of dates is illustrated by the 5th carbon budget. On the 23rd of June the Brexit referendum was held, swiftly followed by David Cameron’s resignation. After a short but brutal Conservative party leadership content, Theresa May took office as Prime Minister on the 11th July. The 5th carbon budget, setting targets for 2028-2032, was passed on the 18th July, with the government required to take wholesale advice from the Committee on Climate Change – had they missed this deadline, the government would have been open to judicial review.

The second accomplishment was to give the job of setting the carbon budgets to an independent body. The Committee on Climate Change was established to undertake the necessary analysis and provide independent advice on setting and meeting these budgets. This distinction was crucial as it established independence, taking it out of the day-to-day of politics. The Committee determines the rules for action, but cannot play the game, thus maintaining credibility.

Finally, the act creates a predictability about the scale of action required, benefiting politicians, businesses and the public. When setting carbon budgets the Committee considers nine different factors, but budgets can only be retrospectively amended if there is a significant change in one of two things: scientific knowledge, or EU or international law or policy. There are always arguments to change of budgets, but if micromanaged they will lose their incentive for action and the investments that are required in the medium term.

The Climate Change Act was a landmark piece of legislation, a world first which provides the basis for the UK's approach to tackling and responding to climate change. Looking back, it is clear that the Act has stood the test of time.

Thanks to our co-organisers UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources and UCL Energy Institute. Watch their video of the event here.