Climate Change - The Long Haul

Article by Peter McMaster

Barrister, Serle Court, London1

The UK Government has unveiled a far-reaching scheme for deep emissions reductions stretching to 2050. The proposal is to introduce a series of so-called 'carbon budgets', reducing emissions by 60 per cent compared with 1990 levels. A Committee on Climate Change will be set up, ostensibly to provide advice and oversee the process. Transparent accounting for emissions based on international standards and annual reporting requirements will stimulate political debate on progress towards targeted reductions. In an attempt to give credibility to the commitment to reduce emissions, the bill proposes a legal duty to meet the targeted reductions. Despite suggestions to the contrary, the proposal stops short of measures that might lend real substance to the legal duty.


Limiting the effects of anthropogenic climate change requires long term action. By the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Kyoto), the United Kingdom promised that by 2012 it would have cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 8 per cent below 1990 levels.2 Kyoto is only a first step. The current consensus is that if global average temperatures are to be stabilised, the developed world must go much further, and many developing countries will also have to reduce their emissions significantly. On 8-9 March 2007, the EU proposed measures to contain global average temperature increases within 2C above preindustrial levels comprising:

a unilateral commitment to cut GHG emissions by 2020 to 20 per cent below 1990 levels

a proposal to cut GHG emissions to 30 per cent below 1990 levels, if other developed countries will make a comparable commitment.

Even this is not enough. The EU's view is that, to achieve the goal of containing warming to 2C, developed countries must collectively reduce their emissions by 60 to 80 per cent by 2050, compared with 1990.3

The ambitious goal is to create a world in which developed countries achieve deep cuts in their own emissions, while the future energy demands of developing country growth are met by low carbon means.

On 13 March 2007, the Prime Minister proposed a draft climate change bill reflecting these objectives at national level.4 The bill proposes a statutory duty to achieve emissions reductions in the same timeframe. The 2020 figure for the United Kingdom is between 26 and 32 per cent, the 2050 figure is 60 per cent. Neither is conditional on a commitment from other developed countries (explicitly at least).

This long-term commitment to emissions reductions serves two purposes. One is to set a good example in the hope that, along with others, the United Kingdom can persuade the world to adopt the necessary measures for a low carbon future. Another is to provide a suitable climate for investment in low-carbon technology by sending a signal that carbon reduction is a long-term commitment, with a view to creating a long-term stable incentive (in the form of a price for carbon reductions) for investors in new carbon-reducing technologies.

The reductions are to be achieved over a series of five-year terms for each of which a 'carbon budget' is to be set, representing a progressive reduction to the 2020 and 2050 targets. In putting forward the bill, the government has made much of the statutory duty to achieve the targets: it has even said in the consultation material published with the bill that these are 'legally binding policy commitments' and that a government that failed to stay within the targets would variously 'be open to judicial review' and 'could be required to take remedial action by order of court'. The bill is being presented as a simple, effective, even legally enforceable, path to achieving the target reductions. This is an exaggeration.

This article looks at the various elements of the scheme, considers to what extent they are legally enforceable and (briefly) what other measures might have been proposed to give teeth to the scheme.

The 2020 and 2050 targets

The commitment to reduce emissions by 26 per cent to 32 per cent by 2020 exceeds the minimum EU commitment of 20 per cent, and at the upper end slightly exceeds the EU's offer to achieve 30 per cent cuts if other developed nations make comparable commitments. The 60 per cent figure is at the bottom of the range of 60 to 80 per cent identified by the EU as being necessary in...

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