United Kingdom

Climate Change Act

Adaptation Framework
Mitigation Framework
Passed in 2008
The Act provides a long-term framework to improve carbon management, to help the transition to a low carbon economy, encourage investment in low carbon goods and provide an international signal. The Act establishes a legally binding target for the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. It also creates 5-yearly 'carbon budgets' as a pathway to meet the long-term target. The Act has now established a legally binding target of at least an 100% cut in GHG emissions by 2050, to be achieved through action in the UK and abroad. Ministers must report on the policies implemented to meet carbon budgets and produce an annual report to Parliament on the status of UK emissions. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) - an independent, expert body to advise the government on the level of carbon budgets and on progress in meeting these budgets - submits annual reports to Parliament on progress towards targets and budgets. The government must respond to the reports, ensuring transparency and accountability. 

The Act sets up a carbon budgeting system that caps emissions over 5-year periods, with three budgets set at a time, to help the UK stay on track for its 2050 target. The first three carbon budgets run from 2008-2012, 2013-2017 and 2018-2022, and were set in law in May 2009. The fourth carbon budget, for 2023-2027 approved by parliament in 2011 and reviewed in 2014, puts into law a target to reduce emissions by 50% from 1990 levels by 2025 (the midpoint of the budget period). The government must report to Parliament its policies and proposals to meet the budgets and set a limit on the purchase of carbon credits for each budgetary period - for the first budgetary period, a zero limit was set in May 2009, excluding units bought by UK participants in the EU Emissions Trading System. For the second budget period, a limit of 55MtCO2e was set. 

The Act also gives powers to introduce domestic emissions trading schemes more quickly and easily through secondary legislation - the first use has been to introduce the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme. The Act introduced measures on biofuels and powers to introduce pilot financial incentive schemes in England for household waste. The Act requires, by the end of 2012, the inclusion of international aviation and shipping emissions in the net carbon account, or an explanation to Parliament why not. The government announced in December 2012 that this decision would be deferred, recognising uncertainty over the international framework for reducing aviation emissions and particularly the treatment of aviation within the EU ETS. The new net zero target still excludes aviation and shipping. 

The government must report at least every 5 years on the risks to the UK of climate change, and publish a programme setting out how these will be addressed. The first such climate change risk assessment was published in 2012. The Act also introduces powers for government to require public bodies and statutory undertakers to carry out their own risk assessment and make plans to address those risks. The Act introduces an Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change, providing advice to, and scrutiny of, the Government's adaptation work. ****** The fifth carbon budget (adopted in June 2016) has set emission reduction levels to 57% compared with 1990 levels. It covers the period between 2028-2032 and is in line with the UK's global commitments. The recommended budget and its latest progress report, the CCC (Committee on Climate Change) listed some recommendations in the form of priorities for policy development, including: 

    • Enabling mature low carbon energy sources (e.g. onshore wind) to come to market
    • Defining how energy efficiency improvements shall be financed and delivered
    • Increasing adoption of low carbon heat, which includes policies to overcoming behavioural barriers
    • Extending vehicle efficiency targets through the 2020s, coupled with policies to increase use of electric vehicles
    • In order to decarbonise effectively by 2050, the CCC has called for all new investment from 2020 onwards in power to be low carbon, excluding back-up and balancing plant. From 2035 onwards, the same will apply to all investments in transport and head.

  • Annual emissions in 2017-2020 to be at least 34% lower than the 1990 baseline
    Economy-wide | Base year target | Target year: 2020 | Base year: 1990
  • Annual emissions in 2017-2020 to be at least 34% lower than the 1990 baseline
    Economy-wide | Base year target | Target year: 2020 | Base year: 1990
  • Net UK carbon account for the year 2050 at least 100% lower than the 1990 baseline. This replaces the historic target of 80% cut in GHG emissions by 2050 compared with a 1990 baseline
    Economy-wide | Base year target | Target year: 2050 | Base year: 1990
  • Emissions are at least 80% lower than the baseline by 2050 compared with a 1990 baseline
    Economy-wide | Base year target | Target year: 2050 | Base year: 1990
  • 80% cut in GHG emissions by 2050 compared with a 1990 baseline
    Economy-wide | Base year target | Target year: 2050 | Base year: 1990
  • Emissions are at least 80% lower than the baseline by 2050 compared with a 1990 baseline
    Economy-wide | Base year target | Target year: 2050 | Base year: 1990
Related litigation cases
  • Claire Stephenson v. Secretary of State for Housing and Communities and Local Government

    Opened in 2018 Case decided

    Claimant, on behalf of the advocacy group Talk Fracking, successfully challenged a section of the UK's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) that promoted fracking. Claimant alleged that the section, known as paragraph 209(a), was developed without accounting for recent evidence of shale gas development's contribution to climate change. The Administrative Court of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice quashed paragraph 209(a). Paragraph 209(a) instructed minerals planning authorities to recognize the benefits of developing oil and gas, including unconventional hydrocarbons, and to implement policies to facilitate their exploration and extraction. The court concluded that the Secretary of State for Housing and Communities and Local Government acted unlawfully by failing to undertake a proper public consultation or to account for recent evidence of the climate impacts of shale gas development. The claimant also argued that paragraph 209(a) triggered the need to conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment and ran afoul of the UK's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Climate Change Act of 2008, claims that the court rejected. On May 23, 2019, the Secretary issued a statement to remove paragraph 209(a), and the UK Government updated the NPPF on June 19.

  • Plan B Earth v. Secretary of State for Transport

    Opened in 2018 Case opened

    Friends of the Earth and Plan B Earth, a British nonprofit with the mission to realize the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, filed suit against the Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling ("the Secretary") alleging inadequate consideration of climate change impacts in regards to the expansion of Heathrow International Airport. (Additional claimants participated in the suit, but these two groups took lead on the climate-related claims.) Claimants argued that the Secretary's national policy statement supporting the expansion of Heathrow Airport violated the Planning Act 2008 ("the 2008 Act") and the Human Rights Act 1998. The case went before the High Court of Justice Queen's Bench Division Administrative Court which refused all six climate change-related claims filed by the two environmental organizations. 

    Environmental Claimants argued that since the 2008 Act requires the Secretary to pursue the objective of sustainable development and consider the desirability of mitigating and adapting to climate change, it further gives rise to implicit obligations to consider the advice of the Committee on Climate Change ("the CCC"), the government's obligations under the Paris Agreement and commitment to review its national climate change targets in light of the Paris Agreement. Claimants maintained that the Secretary violated these implicit obligations by supporting the airport expansion without adequate consideration of the insufficiency of the current UK 2050 climate target ("2050 Target"), the UK's commitments under the Paris Agreement, the CCC's recommendations to review the 2050 Target, and government's recent agreement to review the 2050 Target. Accordingly, they asserted the Secretary's actions were both ultra vires and irrational. Plaintiffs additionally alleged violations of the Human Rights Act 1998. Claimants sought declaratory relief, specifically a declaration that the Secretary of State acted unlawfully in violation of section 5 of the 2008 Act. 

    The court did not find that the Secretary had any obligations to consider the Paris Agreement climate targets, the science underlying those climate targets, or a more stringent potential future climate target necessary for meeting the Paris Agreement. The court was not persuaded by arguments that the 2008 Act's climate action goals could be interpreted to make obligations under the Human Rights Act of 1998 inclusive of the Paris Agreement goals. The court found that the Secretary had fulfilled his obligations to consider existing domestic climate targets and acted within his discretion. 

    The Court of Appeal has granted plaintiffs the permission to appeal the lower court decision. The judge wrote that the "[i]mportance of the issues raised in these and the related proceedings is obvious." At the appeal hearing, which took place on October 21, 2019, Friends of the Earth reiterated their arguments that 1) the government was in breach of the sustainable development duty under section 10(3) of the Planning Act for not considering the Paris Agreement, the non-CO2 impacts and the long term impacts of the Airport National Policy Statement beyond 2050, and 2) the SoS acted unlawfully by omitting reference to international environmental protection objectives in the Appraisal of Sustainability as required by sch.2 of SEA regulations.

    On February 27, 2020 the Court of Appeal reversed the lower court. The court concluded that the Government had made a commitment to the Paris Agreement goals a part of "Government policy" by the time the ANPS was prepared. The Secretary, as a result, needed to expressly consider and address the Paris Agreement goals during the ANPS process (but did not need to act in accordance with the Paris Agreement or reach any particular outcome). The court held that by failing to consider the Paris Agreement the Secretary violated the Planning Act and the requirement to undertake a strategic environmental assessment pursuant to EC Council Directive 2001/42/EC. The court therefore concluded that the ANPS is invalid and must be redone. The court further ruled that in completing a new ANPS, the Secretary should consider the non-carbon dioxide climate impacts of aviation and the effects of emissions beyond 2050, both of which had been omitted from the original analysis. The court did not find it necessary to quash the ANPS, but rather determined that the appropriate form of relief was a declaration that the decision to approve a new runway was unlawful and the ANPS may not have legal effect unless and until the Secretary undertakes a review of it in accordance with the Planning Act.

    On May 6, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal.

  • Plan B Earth and Others v. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy

    Opened in 2017 Case dismissed

    Plan B Earth, a charity with the mission to realize the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, has filed a climate change lawsuit against the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (Secretary of State). Plan B Earth is joined in the lawsuit by 11 citizen claimants ranging in age from 9 to 79 who are impacted by climate change in a variety of ways. The claimants allege that the Secretary of State violated the Climate Change Act 2008 (the 2008 Act) and other law by failing to revise a 2050 carbon reduction target in light of new international law and scientific developments.

    On December 8, 2017, the claimants filed a claim form and a document listing their grounds for judicial review at the High Court of Justice Administrative Court. They note that the 2008 Act set a carbon emissions reduction target for the year 2050 that is at least 80% lower than the aggregate total of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions in 1990 (the 2050 target). This 2050 target was consistent with limiting average warming to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. The claimants argue that the Secretary of State should make the 2050 target more ambitious to reflect scientific developments since 2008 and the Paris Agreement's intention to limit average warming to 1.5 degrees C. Under Section 2 of the 2008 Act, the Secretary of State has the authority to revise the target in light of scientific developments and international law. 
    Claimants present five grounds for seeking judicial review of the Secretary of State's failure to revise the 2050 target: (1) it is ultra vires, because it frustrates the legislative purpose of the 2008 Act; (2) it is based on an error of law regarding the objective of the Paris Agreement; (3) it is irrational, because it fails to take into account and / or inappropriately weighs considerations including the risks of global climate change and predictions of future technical innovation; (4) it violates the Human Rights Act 1998; and (5) it breaches the public sector equality duty set out in Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. 

    Claimants seek declaratory relief that the Secretary of State acted unlawfully in violation of his responsibilities under the 2008 Act and a "mandatory order that the Secretary of State revise the 2050 target in accordance with the purpose of the 2008 Act and the UK's international law obligations, ensuring, at a minimum, that the 2050 target commits the UK to an equitable contribution the Paris Agreement objective and that it conforms to the precautionary principle." They also seek what other relief the court deems appropriate and costs. 

    In February, 2018, the claimants' application for judicial review was denied on all five grounds. The claimants renewed their application for review. On March 20, 2018, a permission hearing took place at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand to determine if the case was strong enough to merit a full hearing. The hearing was adjourned after the Justice decided that the complexity of the issues would require a full-day permission hearing. The Justice also requested a more detailed statement from the Committee on Climate Change, an independent, statutory body established under the Climate Change Act 2008. The Committee is an interested party in the litigation. 

    On July 20, 2018, the High Court found the claims were not arguable and denied permission for the case to proceed. Plan B Earth appealed the decision on multiple grounds, including alleging that the judge misinterpreted Article 2(1)(a)of the Paris Agreement. Appellants argue that the judge incorrectly read this provision to allow for a range of ambition rather than holding the UK for responsible for "[h]olding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels." Accordingly, appellants further argue that the judge incorrectly found the current UK 2050 climate target compatible with the Paris Agreement due to this misinterpretation of required ambition. 

    On January 25, 2019, the Court of Appeal rejected Plan B's appeal of the High Court's denial to hear the case, marking the end of the appeal process. The court concluded that none of the 7 stated grounds had a real prospect of success. The court did not find an error in law in regard to an alleged failure to exercise discretion to amend the 2050 target, nor did the court find that the Secretary of State misunderstood the Paris Agreement or the advice of the Committee on Climate Change. While acknowledging that a governmental response to the need for environmental protection engages human rights in general, the court declined to find that relevant given its other findings that officials exercised proper discretion and understanding of the Paris Agreement and climate-related advice.

  • ClientEarth v. Secretary of State

    Opened in 2020 Case filed

    On January 30, 2020, the environmental group ClientEarth filed an action in the High Court challenging the UK government's decision to approve a natural gas plant, which would be Europe's largest. 

    The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy approved the plant in October, despite the Planning Authority's recommendation that the plant be blocked due to climate change considerations. According to a press release issued by a barristers union, the complaint alleges, among other things, that the Secretary misinterpreted the Overarching National Policy Statement for Energy in assessing the project's greenhouse gas emissions; failed to properly assess the carbon-capture readiness of the facility; and did not consider the UK's mandate to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in a procedurally fair manner or, alternatively, failed to give adequate reasons for her assessment of the net zero target. The High Court gave ClientEarth permission to sue the government. 

    The High Court ruled for the defendants on May 22, 2020. According to press reports, the judge determined that the case involved policy questions requiring a balancing of interests, and that other public interests weigh against the UK's climate goals and for the plant's approval. These include the plant's contribution to security and diversity of energy supply.

  • Packham v. Secretary of State for Transport

    Opened in 2020 Case filed

    On April 6, a British court rejected an attempt to halt a railway project on the ground that the project assessment had not adequately considered greenhouse gas emissions. 

    Environmental campaigner Christopher Packham filed suit on March 27, 2020 to challenge the Secretary of State for Transport's decision to approve the HS2 rail project, a national high-speed railway network to connect London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. The claimaint sought an interim injunction to prevent imminent clearance works in six different woodlands. He brought a number of claims related to a report analyzing "whether and how HS2 should proceed." The claimant alleged, among other things, that the report failed to properly account for expected greenhouse gas emissions during construction of the project; and failed to address the project's effects on greenhouse gas emissions during the period leading up to 2050, and not just in 2050 and beyond, in accordance with the Paris Agreement and the Climate Change Act 2008. At an April 3 hearing, the court determined that claimant did not have a realistic prospect of success; on April 6 it issued written reasons for its decision. The court rejected all claims, including the claim based on greenhouse gas emissions. 

    The court first explained that the report at issue did adequately consider greenhouse gas emissions by assessing the short-term impacts of construction as well as the longer-term effects of providing a mode of transport that is less carbon-intensive than alternatives, such as aviation. The court also rejected the claimant's assertion that the report misrepresented a study by the project's "nominated undertaker" by failing to convey that construction emissions would not be at the "low emissions" end of the possible range, reasoning that the study simply gave a range of possible greenhouse gas emissions that the report fairly summarized. The court concluded that the defendants, therefore, did not fail to take into account a relevant factor that they were legally required to consider. 

    Second, the court dismissed the claimant's argument that both the report assessing H2S and the decision to approve the project failed to address the importance of greenhouse gas emissions in the period leading up to 2050, which is referred to in the Paris Agreement. The court reasoned that the report did consider the effects of the project before and after 2050 resulting from construction and the first 60 years of operation. The court distinguished Plan B Earth v. Secretary of State, in which the Secretary of State admitted that he had not considered the Paris Agreement in approving the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

  • Vince et al. v. Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy et al.

    Opened in 2020 Case filed

    On May 18, 2020, three plaintiffs sought judicial review of the British government's energy national policy statements (Energy NPSs) issued in 2011 on the ground that the NPSs must be reevaluated in light of new British and global climate commitments. 

    The plaintiffs are Dale Vince, founder of a renewable energy company called Ecotricity; journalist and campaigner George Monbiot; and the organization Good Law Project. On March 2 the plaintiffs sent a letter to the Secretaries of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy; Housing, Communities, and Local Government; and Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs. The letter urged the Secretaries to consider whether the Energy NPSs are still appropriate under section 6(1) of the Planning Act 2008 in light of changed circumstances. These changed circumstances include an amendment to the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment), in June 2019, to require that the UK achieves carbon neutrality by 2050; the Paris Agreement; the IPCC special report on 1.5 degrees of warming; the UK Parliament's declaration of a climate emergency; and the UK's exit from the European Union. The government responded on March 23 that it was considering whether to review the Energy NPSs. 

    On May 18 the plaintiffs sought judicial review. The plaintiffs argue that the events discussed above constitute a significant change in circumstances since the Energy NPSs were adopted in 2011, requiring review of the NPSs. The plaintiffs alternatively argue that the Secretaries of State may not exercise their discretion to frustrate the operations of Any Act of Parliament, and that the current Energy NPSs frustrate the intent of the Climate Change Act 2008 as amended in 2019. The plaintiffs seek a declaration that the government must review the Energy NPSs; or, alternatively, a declaration that the Energy NPSs are unlawful. The plaintiffs filed an amended summons on June 29, 2020.

from the Grantham Research Institute
from the Grantham Research Institute
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