On 27 May 2021, Baroness Sheehan is due to ask Her Majesty’s Government “what plans they have to ensure that legislation aligns with their ambition for the United Kingdom to be a global leader in achieving its climate change targets”.

What are the UK’s climate change targets?

On 20 April 2021, the Government announced that it “will set the world’s most ambitious climate change target” to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels as part of its sixth carbon budget. The UK’s carbon budgets place a restriction on the total amount of greenhouse gases the UK can emit over a five-year period.

The target was informed by advice from the Climate Change Committee, which published a report on the UK’s sixth carbon budget on 9 December 2020. The Climate Change Committee is a statutory body, set up under the Climate Change Act 2008. It advises the UK and devolved governments on the UK’s progress in tacking climate change.

The target set in this carbon budget will include the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions, which were excluded from the UK’s previous carbon budgets.

The Government has said the sixth carbon budget will be enshrined in law by the end of June 2021, under the Carbon Budget Order 2021. It was laid before Parliament on 21 April 2021 and will need to be approved by both Houses before it can be enacted. The Government is required to set carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act 2008. They are legally binding and are intended to act as stepping stones towards the net zero target in 2050.

Net zero

In June 2019, the Government said it was the first major economy in the world to pass laws to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. It outlined that net zero meant:

any emissions would be balanced by schemes to offset an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, such as planting trees or using technology like carbon capture and storage.

The Government has said that it will set out a net zero strategy in the months before the COP26 summit in November 2021.

What legislation has the Government put in place?

The Climate Change Act

The Climate Change Act, as amended in 2019, commits the UK to ‘net zero’ by 2050. The original act, passed in 2008, committed the UK to an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. In 2019, the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019 was passed which increased the UK’s commitment to a 100% reduction in emissions by 2050.

A 2018 report from the Grantham Institute considered the impact of the act in its first ten years. The report set out that the act had a number of achievements, such as the transformation of the power sector and the improvement of the debate around climate change issues. It noted that “there are no outright failures and often the problems are not with the act itself, but with the way policymakers have acted under the framework it created”.

The report then set out where the act had not succeeded in its aims:

  • The Climate Change Act on its own is not sufficiently investible; the act provides certainty about carbon targets, but not carbon policies.
  • There may be insufficient protection against backsliding; without enforcement action, the gap between the emissions targets set in law and the policies put in place to deliver them may widen.
  • Government buy-in is uneven across departments; policymaking in the relevant sectors in line with long-term climate objectives has happened only to a degree.
  • There has been more adaptation planning than adaptation action; the debate on adaptation has progressed more slowly than that of mitigation.

The Institute made some recommendations on reforming the act, such as refining the carbon accounting rules, setting a statutory response time for carbon plans and giving clearer criteria for assessing compliance. The Institute also recommended amending the act to legislate for net zero targets, which has since been enacted.

Other policy initiatives

A briefing by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit outlines several other policies the Government has introduced to meet its net zero target. These include:

  • Emission Trading Scheme, which replaces the EU scheme following the UK’s departure from the EU. The scheme is mandatory for energy-intensive industries. They are given permits to emit greenhouse gases and can trade them at the market rate. It is intended to incentivise industries to lower emissions and save money.
  • Fuel duty tax on the road fuel burnt by UK car drivers.
  • Contracts for Difference guarantee a fixed price per unit of low-carbon power generation for large-scale power operations.
  • Energy Company Obligation, on large energy firms in Britain, requires companies to boost the efficiency of homes, with the costs passed to consumers via energy bills.
  • Climate Change Levy (CCL) is paid by polluters in the business sector on every unit of energy consumed. CCLs can be opted out of if the user agrees to a Climate Change Agreement to boost their efficiency.


In November 2021, the UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow. The summit will bring together the signatories of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) for formal negotiations, informal consultations, and technical briefings.

The UK’s goals for COP26 are:

The UK, in partnership with Italy, holds the COP presidency for 2021. The Government has appointed Alok Sharma as the full-time president for COP26. Prior to his appointment, Mr Sharma was Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and President for COP.

Is the UK on track to meet its climate targets?

The UK is currently in the third carbon budget period (2018 to 2022). The Climate Change Committee has said that the UK is currently on track to meet its target of a 37% reduction in emissions compared to 1990 by 2022, but it is not on track to meet its targets outlined by the fourth and fifth carbon budgets—a 51% reduction compared to 1990 levels by 2025 and a 57% reduction compared to 1990 levels by 2030. The committee said that the Government will have to “introduce more challenging measures” if the UK is to meet future carbon budgets and the net zero target for 2050.

In a report from September 2020, the Institute for Government said that there was “little evidence that the Government, and the politicians who waved the new target [of net zero by 2050] through with little debate, have confronted the enormous scale of the task ahead”. It set out several requirements the Government would need to introduce to meet its net zero target. These were:

  • A coherent plan based on a thorough appraisal of practical options, which sets out how, sector by sector, the UK will achieve emissions reductions, and which gives businesses the certainty they need to invest.
  • Consistent policy and regulatory frameworks in each sector.
  • The capacity to co-ordinate action across the whole of government and beyond.
  • An approach to minimising the costs of transition and allocating them fairly, while maintaining businesses’ competitiveness.
  • The capability to make key decisions on net zero, develop policies and implement them—including where technology options are uncertain.
  • A process that builds public and political consent for measures before they are introduced and maintains that consent while the transition is under way.
  • Effective scrutiny by Parliament and other bodies to hold government to account—and minimise the temptation of ‘backsliding’.

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Image by Marcin Jozwiak from Unsplash.