An Overview of the UK Climate Agenda

To date, two legal instruments form a key part of the United Kingdom’s (UK) climate change policy agenda: the Climate Change Act (CCA) 2008 and the Climate and Ecology Bill 2019-2021.

The Climate Change Act (CCA) 2008

The CCA establishes a legally binding target for the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050 [1]. It sets a legally binding target to cut GHG emissions by at least 100% below 1990 levels by 2050 [10]. An important parameter of this target is that it is set to be achieved through actions both in the UK and abroad. This is important because it commits the UK to reduce its emissions for its activities both at home and abroad e.g. within relevant commercial value chains across the globe. Almost half (46%) of the UK’s actual greenhouse gas footprint pertain to outsourced production and distribution of UK goods and services imports [5]. To achieve this goal, 5-yearly ‘carbon budgets‘ were created, where 1 Ministers must report on the policies implemented to meet carbon budgets and produce an annual report to Parliament on the status of UK emissions [1].

CCA Timeline of Events

The CCA introduced an Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change which provides advice to, and scrutiny of, the Government’s adaptation work [1]. Covering the 2028-2032 period, the CCA provides key policy recommendations within its published Reports to Parliament. Its 2017 report entitled Meeting Carbon Budgets: Closing the policy gap shared key findings relevant for the policy and decision-making process. These included that:

  • Although good progress has been made to date, that progress is stalling. Since 2012, emissions reductions have been largely confined to the power sector, whilst emissions from transport and building stock are rising, and
  • Effective new strategies and policies are urgently needed to ensure emissions continue to fall in line with the commitments agreed by Parliament [2].

The upcoming Climate and Ecological Bill 2019-2021

The Climate and Ecological Bill 2019-21 (The Bill) originates from the Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill 2019-2021 initiative under the climate change campaign movement Extinction Rebellion (XR). The grassroots movement viewed the UK government’s net-zero 2050 timeline as not soon enough to avoid serious climate change impacts, and impacts on biodiversity, instead of calling for a 2025 target [3].

The CEE has notable political and non-political support. Over 100 MPs from seven different political parties have backed it. The CEE also has support from thousands of campaigners across the country, and from a broad alliance of businesses and non-governmental organisations [4].

The Climate and Ecological Bill 2019-2021 (or The Bill, as introduced to Parliament), enshrines in law specific conditions for the UK to reduce its fair and real share of emissions through direct decarbonisation based on the accounting of the UK’s total carbon footprint. It also stipulates that measures must be implemented to mitigate the impact of the UK’s ecological footprint, both at home and abroad as a consequence of its outsourced supply chains. The Bill’s ‘strategy’ to meet its objectives, works toward hastening the UK’s path towards net-zero emissions by 2050 [5].

What’s New in The Bill? The Climate and Ecology Bill 2019-21 will aim to set new legally binding environment and climate objectives for the UK and create a Citizen’s Assembly to support the Government in meeting those objectives. The Bill includes up to seven newly proposed elements that build upon the government’s existing commitment. These include [5]:

  1. Global Fairness – setting specific conditions for the UK concerning equity, in line with the principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities” (CBDR-RC) in accordance with the Paris Agreement.
  2. Consumption-based emissions accounting – reporting the UK’s full greenhouse gas footprint, via consumption-based emissions accounting. This comprises emissions from the production and distribution of all goods and services consumed in the UK.
  3. Encouraging natural climate solutions (NCS) – ie. the capture and storage of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by the flora and the earth.
  4. Discarding the use of unproven negative emissions technologies (NETs)- i.e. technologies of carbon dioxide capture such as direct air capture.
  5. Abundance and health of ecosystems – the Bill calls for restoring the variety, abundance and health of the UK’s biodiversity and its ecosystems-both natural and human-modified – and the enhancement of the ecosystem services they generate.
  6. Protecting ecological systems damaged by supply chains – introduces measures to account for the UK’s impact of its ecological footprint through its consumption demands.
  7. A Citizens’ Assembly to determine a just transition – will be convened to help both the UK Government and Parliament to create and review the strategy to achieve the Bill’s objectives.

Current Status of The Bill

The first reading of The Bill was held in the House of Commons on 02 September 2020. The date for the second reading is yet to be determined. Recognising the need for urgency, and 3 Early Day Motion has been signed by 83 MPs supported by Members from across a number of opposition parties [3].

Current Status of Bill Passage through Parliament, (as of 18.03.2021)

The bill is currently in the second reading
Source: UK Parliament 2021

Brexit Implications

In the areas of energy and climate change, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the UK and European Union, adopted on 24 December 2020, includes unprecedented climate change commitments for a trade agreement. Both Parties have made commitments to net zero emissions by 2050 towards meeting the 1.5C global warming target made at the Paris Agreement 2015. However, actions that would constitute a breach of the deal in terms of climate change are not explicit in the TCA’s text [7].

Leaving the EU will have implications on the UK’s carbon targets, progress towards them, and how they have been accounted for. Brexit has already had an impact on the calculations measuring achievements under the UK’s Nationally Determined Contributions NDC) and their carbon budget [7]. Furthermore, concerns have been raised about the UK-specific regulatory bodies now required to replace those that had been run by the EU. For example, a new UK Office for Environmental Protection in the wake of Brexit is not yet up and running due to Brexit and COVID-19 delays [7]. The new interim Office is tentatively set to be launched from July 2021 [8].

Although the UK Government has signalled its intention to adhere to its existing carbon reduction commitments, the impacts of Brexit ultimately remain to be seen. Also uncertain, is whether the UK will remain a member of the EU Emissions Trading System. Going forward, 4 the UK’s exit from the European Single Market is also likely to have an impact on trade for low-carbon goods with the European Union [9].


  1. Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. 2021. Climate Change Act. Accessed 04.03.2021.
  2. Climate Change Committee. 2017. 2017 Report to Parliament – Meeting Carbon Budgets: Closing the policy gap. Accessed 05.03.2021.
  3. Ares, Elena. 2021. Climate and Ecological bill 2019-21. UK Parliament, Accessed 18.03.2021.
  4. CEE Bill Alliance. 2021. Who is calling for the CEE Bill?. Accessed 18.03.2021.
  5. CEE Bill Alliance. 2021. Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill Executive Summary. Accessed 18.03.2021.
  6. Institute for Government. 2020. UK net-zero target. Accessed 04.03.2021.
  7. Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, 2021. Brexit: implications for energy and climate change. Accessed 19.03.2021.
  8. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and Rebecca Pow MP, 2021. Interim Office for Environmental Protection to be launched. OGL, Accessed 19.03.2021.
  9. Grantham Research Institute, 2021. Brexit. Accessed 19.03.2021.
  10. Evans, Simon. 2021. Analysis: the UK is now halfway to meeting its ‘net-zero emissions’ target. Carbon Brief. Accessed 27.04.2021

Post Edited by Manon Dangelser, YES-UK Country Representative.