Implementation of the Climate Change Act

With environmental warnings from the scientific community becoming ever more dire, we take a look at the landmark UK legislation that aimed to reduce our usage of fossil fuels. How effective has it really been?

  • Last updated May 21, 2019 11:48:08 AM
  • David Carnes

The Climate Change Act 2008 is the first of its kind anywhere in the world to establish legally binding carbon emissions targets for an entire nation. More specifically, it obligates the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The Act has teeth, because it authorises ministers to introduce binding measures to achieve this target. But over ten years on, the results are mixed.

What’s changed?

The success of the UK’s climate change initiatives since 2008 has been measurable but uneven. Below is a sector-by-sector analysis. 

The energy sector 

The power sector is one of the bright spots of the implementation of the Climate Change Act. As of 2017, carbon emissions were down 43% below 1990 levels. Further progress seems likely, due to major reductions in the cost of renewable energy, especially offshore wind generation. In fact, contracts have recently been signed that should result in the acceleration of the availability of offshore wind generation resources, beginning in the early 2020s. Costs for onshore wind and solar power generation have also fallen significantly. 

2017 marked the first year that power generation from low-carbon sources exceeded 50% of total power generation. This milestone has been achieved in two ways—directly, through the use of low-carbon sources and indirectly, through significantly reduced consumption. Among the 48% of power generation that is still sourced from fossil fuels, the use of coal has fallen from 33% to 7%, while the use of natural gas has fallen only moderately. 

The building sector 

Direct greenhouse gas emissions from buildings account for about a fifth of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. Emissions from homes account for about three-quarters of this total, with commercial buildings and public buildings splitting the remainder about 60/40, respectively. All told, buildings account for about two-thirds of total UK electricity consumption. 

Building emissions are falling consistently, due to the decarbonisation of the electricity supply (see the foregoing section detailing progress in the energy sector) and reduced consumption. Current emissions, however, are still only about 11% below the 1990 baseline. Progress in this area is inherently challenging, due to the apparently irreversible trend of urbanisation throughout the UK, and the results so far have been anemic.

One trend has been encouraging—new buildings are being designed to operate on low-carbon heating (heat pumps and low-carbon district heating schemes, for example). Emission standards are also being “future-proofed” at the local level—standards are being tightened so that today’s new buildings will not have to be retrofitted in the future to meet the ever-more stringent emissions standards that may be required to reach the 2050 target. 

The transport sector

The transport sector—the largest-emitting sector of the national economy—offers little encouragement at present. In fact, it's perhaps the most troubled sector of all, and there’s little good news to report. Sales of electric vehicles did increase by nearly 2% in 2017, but they are still marginally below the benchmarks that must be met to achieve 2050 targets. 

What good news can be found, however, gives rise to guarded long-term optimism even if it doesn’t dramatically affect emissions at present:

- There has been a marked move away from diesel fuel in recent years. 

- People take 16% fewer trips a year than they did in 1998. 

- More significantly, young people are travelling much less often than before—17- to 34-year-olds drove 20% less in 2014 than they did in 2004. 

- Less than a third of 17- to 20-year-olds even hold a driving licence, a dramatic decrease from over 50% a decade ago. Research indicates that the later people obtain a driving licence, the less they drive later on in life.

- Shipping emissions have fallen to 22% below 2008 levels. 

The industry sector 

The outlook for the industry sector is generally bright, albeit not without reservations. UK’s industrial CO2 emissions have fallen to 50% of 1990 levels, even as output has been increasing. The reasons for this favourable state of affairs include a less carbon-intensive mix of industrial output and improvements in energy intensity. In particular, the driving factors include: 

- A large drop in coal production.

- More efficient operation of the natural gas distribution network.

- The use of new technologies, particularly technologies that reduce the level of nitrous oxide emissions arising from the production of nitric acid.

- Falling demand.

- Structural reforms in the economy (manufacturing is tending towards less carbon-intensive sectors).

- Switching from fossil fuels to electricity in some subsectors. 


The waste sector accounts for only about 4% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions, and it consists mainly of methane emissions from landfills. Although emissions are 70% below 1990 levels, this trend reversed course, and emissions actually increased about 5% in 2016. Nevertheless, the long-term decline is expected to continue, for the following reasons: 

- Less biological waste is being deposited in landfills. 

- Investment in methane capture technology is yielding results that are expected to accelerate in the near future. 

- Landfill sites are being managed in a “greener” fashion. 

- Older, less energy-efficient landfill sites are being retired in favour of new, “greener” sites. Wastewater treatment emissions have decreased to 82% of 1990 levels. 

- The generation of biodegradable waste is decreasing by 8% a year on average.

- The capture of waste-generated methane for use as an energy source rather than dissipation through emission is increasing at an accelerating annual rate, reaching 58% in 2016. Methane capture at some landfill sites is as high as 90%.

Where progress has stalled 

The energy sector 

Although the energy sector has been a bright spot of national compliance with the Climate Change Act, not every subsector can boast of the same progress:

- Little progress has been made in the reduction of gas-fired power generation. Emissions levels are about the same as they were in 2011.

- Few new nuclear power plants are being constructed. Although the Hinkley Point C is expected to be commissioned in 2025, few other projects are making progress. It is questionable whether even a handful of new nuclear power plants will be commissioned before 2030. 

- No plans have been formulated to run auctions that would deliver solar and onshore wind power, even though these forms of power generation have been shown to be the least expensive form of power generation available. 

- The UK remains a net importer of electricity. 

The building sector 

Despite significant progress in limited areas, the big picture in this sector is far from encouraging: 

- The most recent data indicates that fewer than 5% of UK buildings feature low-carbon heat deployment. Although direct emissions from buildings fell by 4% in 2016, this gain was derived solely from higher winter temperatures—without that factor, emissions would have risen by about 1% for the second consecutive year.

- Home insulation rates represent another failure in this sector—in 2017, only 123,000 lofts or walls were insulated. Over the longer term, home insulation rates stand at just 5% of peak market delivery in 2012. This failure represents a tremendous lost opportunity for relatively large emissions gains as well as long-term savings for homeowners.

- At present, domestic heat pumps have captured less than 1% of the home heating system market. More ominously, national standards do not yet even require new homes to be designed to accommodate low-carbon heating or deliver high levels of energy efficiency. Until these standards are in place, one cannot be optimistic about long-term prospects in the building sector.

The transport sector

Progress in the transport sector has stalled in many ways, to the extent that this sector’s total emissions (28%) represents a significantly larger share of total emissions than they did only a few years ago. The problem extends to the command and control level— the Government's “Road to Zero” road transport strategy has been delayed, for example. 

- In 2016, emissions from surface transport, representing over 90% of all transport emissions, actually increased by 2.3%. Emissions from Heavy Goods Vehicles increased by about the same amount, even though a 4.8% annual decline is necessary to keep the sector on target for 2050. Travel demand continues to grow even as efficiency gains have slowed.

- Emission reduction targets are being missed in virtually every subsector. Emissions in the domestic transport subsectors were flat in 2017, but this actually counts as good news for the sector after three consecutive years of rising emissions. 

- New car CO2 emissions per mile increased by 0.8% in 2017, for the first time since 2000, resulting in the need for reductions of nearly 6% per year to meet the 2020/2021 target. This trend is largely due to consumer preferences—people are buying larger cars. UK residents appear more addicted than ever to travelling by private car rather than public transport. 

- In 2017, the biofuels share of overall fuel sales remained flat at 2.3%. 

The industry sector 

Despite the industry sector’s long-term progress, emissions rose by 1% in 2017 (although industrial output grew by 3%). Most of this increase was triggered by an increase in emissions from oil and gas production. In 2017, direct emissions from industry accounted for almost 25% of domestic greenhouse gas emissions. CO2 accounted for over 90% of direct emissions. 

Among industry emissions, the manufacturing subsector accounted for about 60% in 2017, about the same percentage as the previous year. Hopefully the 2017 figure represents a speed bump; up until then emissions had declined steadily for many years. CO2 emissions from refineries and fossil fuel production actually rose 2% in 2017, following the same pattern as manufacturing—a sudden stall after years of steady progress. 

The waste sector 

While the overall outlook for the waste sector remains positive, dark spots persist:

- Household recycling rates increased only slightly, to 44.6% in 2016, casting doubt upon the UK’s commitment to raise recycling rates to 50% by 2020.

- At the governmental level, local English authorities are still subject to no requirement to implement separate food waste collection, resulting in a dismal separate waste collection rate of only 1.6% in 2016. 

Based on the fact that the UK consumes more plastic straws than any other nation in Europe, along with the fact that plastic straws take 200 years to biodegrade, the Government has announced a plastic straw ban, effective some time between October 2019 and October 2020. Although this would save about 3,570 tonnes of waste in the UK alone, it’s just a drop in the bucket, representing less than one-millionth of the total weight of plastic waste.

Hope for the future

Perhaps the best measure of the UK’s long-term prospects for success in battling climate change lies not so much in last year’s statistics, but in the nation’s long-term commitment, especially among industry leaders, to move decisively forward with new technologies that could tip the balance of climate change in humanity’s favour.

One new technology that has the potential to accelerate progress in the 2020s and beyond is Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS). CCUS technology captures carbon from power stations and energy-intensive industries such as chemicals, steel and oil refining. The captured carbon can be either recycled for industrial purposes or stored underground without ever being emitted into the atmosphere. 

CCUS’ potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions isn’t being ignored. In November 2018, more than 50 industry leaders from across the world, including CEOs of major energy and manufacturing companies, agreed a plan to commit to build the UK’s first CCUS facilities at industrial sites across the country. Work will begin during the first half of 2019, and the first CCUS facility will commence operations some time in the mid-2020s. 

Ultimately, it’s time that is our greatest enemy. Even the strongest commitment to battling climate change can be defeated if we are too slow to rouse ourselves. Recent speed bumps should not dissuade us from forging ahead with all deliberate speed.

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