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Happy Birthday, Climate Change Act!

As we celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Climate Change Act, our Head of Climate Change, Gareth Redmond-King, explains what it is all about - and why it is so important.

Did you know that the UK has a piece of law called the Climate Change Act? Well, it’s 10 years old this month – on 26th November, to be exact. It’s a world-leading piece of legislation which other countries (most recently Sweden and New Zealand) have copied, to introduce their own laws. And it’s the foundation for the UK’s action to tackle climate change

Here are five things you need to know about it, as you hum or sing Happy Birthday to the Climate Change Act for its tenth birthday! 

Why is it important?

Climate change is wreaking havoc on wildlife and nature, as well as threatening people’s lives and homes around the world. The world has warmed by around 1ºC over the last century; the overwhelming majority of scientists who work in relevant fields are clear that this is caused by human action. What action? Mainly the burning of fossil fuels.  But also the chopping down of forests, and industrial-scale livestock farming with the change in land-use that that involves. 

A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned of the huge risks to people, landscapes and nature of any temperature rise above 1.5ºC.  For instance, if we can stick at that level, then we might hope to save up to 30% of the world’s amazing coral reefs; at 2ºC, we risk losing them all. These threats are why the world signed up to the Paris Agreement in 2015, committing to keep warming to ‘well below 2ºC’ but pursuing efforts towards 1.5ºC. 

The Climate Change Act puts a legal duty on UK governments to deliver cuts in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions – the causes of climate change. They commit to an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 (compared to the level in 1990). This is consistent with keeping warming to 2ºC.

Who’s responsible for it?

The UK Parliament passed the legislation back in 2008.  Introduced by a Labour Secretary of State, it had cross-party support at the time. Astonishingly, given the division and disagreement that we so often associate with MPs, only five people actually voted against the Climate Change Act when it was introduced back then. Two of them are still MPs (Christopher Chope and Philip Davies), two are in the House of Lords (Peter Lilley and Andrew Tyrie), and Ann Widdecombe is no longer in Parliament. 

Parliament is also responsible for agreeing the carbon budgets which are set under the Act. Each budget is for five years, limiting the amount of carbon dioxide we can emit during that period. They are stepping-stones downwards, on a trajectory towards an 80% cut by 2050. 

The Act created a body called the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). They calculate the carbon budgets and then advise government on what level they should be set at.  They also keep an eye on progress, and report to Parliament and the public, also offering advice on how to achieve the budgets – where to cut emissions, for instance. 

What has it achieved?

Quite apart from that international leadership, and the remarkable political consensus on the need to tackle climate change here in the UK, the Act has achieved a lot. The action it has driven by government and businesses has led to emissions reductions of 43% by 2017. But at what cost, I hear you ask? Well, the UK has grown its economy by two-thirds over the same period. It has long been established that it will cost us more in the long-run to pay for the costs of climate change than it costs in the short and medium term to tackle it and avoid the worst impacts. The UK has proved that you don’t need to grow your emissions to grow richer as a country. Investment in renewables, energy efficiency and electric vehicles, for instance, has created jobs and growth – as well as reducing emissions. 

Why do we need to improve on it?

You might have spotted just now that the 80% emissions cuts are consistent with keeping warming to 2ºC whilst Paris and the IPCC are pushing for 1.5ºC. That’s your answer – we need to avoid 2ºC of warming if we can.  That means that we need to go further than the Climate Change Act targets currently get us. We need to get the UK’s economy to ‘net-zero’ emissions, and we need to do that before 2050. 

Net-zero means cutting emissions as much as we possibly can in every single sector – to zero, where we can. But where we can’t, we will still have some greenhouse gas emissions.  To account for those, we need to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.  Oceans, trees, soils, peatlands and wetlands all absorb CO2; protecting them, restoring them, planting more trees etc all help.  But we will also need to develop technology to capture and store CO2 from industry and from the atmosphere if we’re going to succeed in tackling climate change. Doing that means that we can remove as much as we still emit – and so the net emissions level is zero; hence ‘net-zero’.

If we don’t, then our climate will continue to change – the planet will continue to heat up. According to our Living Planet Report 2018, we’ve lost, on average, 60% of wildlife populations since 1970. Climate change is not yet the biggest cause of that loss – but it is a growing threat and, if we tackled all the other threats and failed to stop climate change, we would have wasted our time. If we carry on as we are now, then one in six species is at risk of extinction around the world as a result of climate change. Our world is under threat.

What is WWF doing?

We are fighting for our world. We want to build a movement of people prepared to join us, people who will fight for your world. We need politicians and businesses to understand the scale of the threat, and know that we care about it and that we demand action to tackle it. So we need people to take action themselves, and make all of our voices heard.

To help this, we just published a new report that shows net-zero is possible in the UK, and it’s possible by 2045. It sets out what we need to do – making the case that it is essential, possible and urgent to commit to a net-zero UK by 2045. It makes clear we need to join up international efforts to tackle climate change with goals to deliver sustainable development for people around the world, and commitments to protecting wildlife and nature across our planet.  We need a global deal for nature, and we need it now!

Help us – join our movement and fight for your world. You can work out your own climate impact and you can join us. There really isn’t much time left to make a difference.