The climate emergency will shape policy across the UK

Out-Law Analysis | 18 Nov 2020 | 8:58 am | 6 min. read

UK businesses can expect the declarations of 'climate emergency' by international, national and local authorities to increasingly shape policy decisions on issues that will impact how they operate, including in areas such as planning and transport.

There is already evidence of how climate change emergency action plans are driving changes in approach at local authority level and fresh signs that it will drive national strategy.

What does 'climate emergency' mean?

Warnings about the implications of 'global warming' on the earth's environment have been sounded for decades. In 2015, through the Paris Agreement, global leaders made an historic commitment to address the problem.

The Paris Agreement, signed by over 190 countries around the world, aims to limit the rise of global temperature to no more than a 1.5°C about pre-industrial levels. This aim has been widely interpreted as requiring global carbon dioxide emissions to reach 'net-zero' by 2050. According to the United Nations environment programme, meeting the 1.5°C target would require a global reduction of 7.6% in carbon emissions.

Despite the agreement, many campaigners believe the pace of change required has not been fast enough. Prominent groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future have heightened awareness, and since December 2016 a stream of local and national authorities around the world have made declarations of 'climate emergency' in an effort to further raise the profile of the issues faced and use it to rally public support around increased mitigating measures.

There is no fixed definition of a 'climate emergency', but all declarations of one made by local and national authorities focus on the need for 'urgent action' to reduce or halt climate change in order to prevent further environmental damage. These declarations are having an increasing impact on policy making.


Across the UK, 308 out of 408 local authorities, led by parties from across the political spectrum, have declared a climate emergency. Of those councils that have declared a climate emergency, 226 have set a target date of 2050 or sooner for action – 174 have set a target date of 2030. There appears to be broad political support for the climate emergency with councils led by all the main political parties declaring a climate emergency.

All local authorities mention an ambition to reduce carbon emissions, however there is a significant difference in the language used and commitments made. For example, Cumbria County Council makes a specific point about reducing emissions through waste contracts and reducing waste to landfill, whereas East Sussex County Council leads by highlighting its support for the UN sustainable development goals.

Based on our own experience, climate change emergency action plans (CCAPs) drafted by local authorities that have declared a climate emergency are increasingly driving behaviour across all local authority functions, including planning, transport and recreation. There is also greater scrutiny being applied to 'local plans' – local planning authorities' planning policies for their area – in terms of ways to reduce local authorities' carbon footprint and increase sustainable development.

Planning decisions now also contain climate change impact analysis. These commonly refer back to older local plans that do not yet include provisions consistent with a declared 'climate emergency', or to the National Planning Policy Framework. However, it seems inevitable that decisions will eventually be scrutinised against CCAPs, updated government policy following the setting of the sixth carbon budget, or even international treaty obligations.

It is not always the case that local authorities act in a manner consistent with their declaration of a climate emergency, however. A number of local authorities to have declared a climate emergency have also opposed renewable energy developments within their area. These decisions have highlighted an inherent tension that exists – to realise a future energy system based on a greater proportion of renewable energy sources, local planning authorities are going to have to accept that there will need to be development of renewable projects that have a necessarily impact on the landscape. This is recognised in various national policy statements for energy issued by the UK government.


  • UK parliament – the UK parliament declared a climate emergency in May 2019 following a motion raised by the opposition Labour Party. Responding to the motion, then environment secretary, Michael Gove, said that it was "actions, not words" that would determine success in tackling climate change. Despite Parliament's declaration of a climate emergency, it has no binding effect on the UK government.
  • Scottish government – Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon declared a climate emergency during a speech at the SNP conference in April 2019. This was followed up with the passing of the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act which committed the Scottish government to increasing its target for reducing all "greenhouse gas emissions" to 100% by 2045, from its previous target of 80%.


  • Welsh government – in April 2019, the Welsh government declared a climate emergency. The statement committed the Welsh government to achieving a carbon neutral public sector by 2030 and to coordinating action to help other areas of the economy to make a decisive shift away from fossil fuels, involving academia, industry and the third sector.


  • Northern Ireland – in February 2020, the Northern Ireland Assembly declared a climate emergency and supported immediate action to cut carbon emissions. It also called for an independent Environmental Protection Agency to be established in Northern Ireland. A new climate change bill is due to be introduced to Stormont imminently.

Whilst the declaration of a climate emergency has been followed up with adjusted targets and commitments in some of the devolved nations, it is the UK government's commitment to net zero by 2050, and impending sixth carbon budget under the Climate Change Act 2008, that is likely to be the key driver for detailed policy and measures to drive down carbon in the UK economy.

Given the increased activity by non-governmental organisations and others and an increasing number of climate related legal challenges, it is important that UK authorities and other governments ensure scrutiny and consideration of policies, processes and decisions against national and international legal commitments, as well as declarations of policy.


A number of law makers across Europe have brought forward motions and voted on climate emergencies. Most of these have been non-binding, however there has been some instances of governments being called on to adopt the term.

  • European Parliament – the European Parliament approved a resolution declaring a climate and environmental emergency in Europe and globally in November 2019. As part of this, MEPs called on the European Commission to ensure all proposals are aligned with the 1.5 °C target from the Paris Agreement. They also stated the EU should cut emissions by 55% by 2030 to become climate neutral by 2050 and focused on global emissions from shipping and aviation.
  • Austria – the parliament voted to declare a climate emergency in September 2019, again aimed at limiting the temperature rise to the 1.5 °C target. The vote was largely symbolic, but enjoyed parliamentary support from all parties except from the far-right, Austrian Freedom Party.
  • France – the Assemblee Nationale voted to declare a climate emergency in June 2019. This was a largely symbolic vote, and does not place any legal obligation on the French government.
  • Ireland – parliament voted to declare a climate emergency in May 2019, calling on the Irish government to do more to reduce the loss of biodiversity. In addition to this, 17 councils in Ireland have declared a climate emergency.
  • Germany – 60 cities across Germany have declared a climate emergency, led by Constance and followed by larger cities such as Munich and Berlin. The federal government continues to stick to its commitments in the Paris Agreement, but domestic opinion is varied on how much further to go and the associated costs.
  • Spain – the Spanish parliament voted on measures in September 2019 which were later endorsed by the Spanish government.

Whilst not specifically driven by its resolution declaring a climate and environmental emergency, the European Commission has proposed that at least 25% of all of the EU's expenditure for the budget period 2021 to 2027 "will contribute to climate action". This commitment also applies to the €750bn coronavirus recovery package it has outlined. In addition the EU has set up the €40bn 'Just Transition Fund' under the EU Green Deal, and a European Investment Bank public sector loan facility with €10bn in loans backed by €1.5bn of EU budget.

In the UK, however, the government has been criticised for under-investing in measures to meet its 'net zero by 2050' target, and considerably more investment is needed to put the UK on a par with the investment by other major European economies such as France and Germany in their national stimulus plans.

Prime minister Boris Johnson's new 'ten point plan for a green industrial revolution' is, however, a further sign that action and not just words will follow declarations of climate emergency.