Accessibility and coherence of UK climate change statistics

27 October 2021
Last updated:
27 October 2021


Why is this review needed?

Climate change is widely seen as the most important challenge facing the world today. With a rising global temperature resulting in warming oceans and more extreme weather events, it is an issue that is becoming ever more pressing. Climate change is already having wide-ranging effects on all areas of life, and the impact will become more severe as temperatures continue to rise.

In August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its Sixth Assessment Report, which was the starkest warning yet of the major effects of climate change caused by human activities. It highlights how new simulations, analysis and methods have led to a greater understanding of the human influence on a wide range of climate variables and how the scale of recent changes across the climate system has been unprecedented. This shows the urgent need for significant policy action and a strong evidence base to underpin decisions.

The majority of UK climate change policy originates from the Climate Change Act 2008 which initially set a target to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 80% of 1990 levels. At the United Nations’ 21st Conference of Parties (COP21), held in Paris in 2015, the UK signed up to the Paris Agreement which set a further requirement to limit global temperature change to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and with nations expected to make a concerted effort to achieve a limit of 1.5 degrees. As part of the UK Government’s approach to achieve this, a 2019 amendment to the 2008 Act was introduced which set a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This target has spurred the development of a range of policies and strategies, including the main net zero strategy and decarbonisation plans for individual sectors including energy, transport and heat and buildings.

While the UK Government is responsible for meeting international obligations such as the Paris Agreement, the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own powers to set climate targets and strategies. In Scotland the main target is set out in the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019 which commits the Scottish Government to the more ambitious target of achieving net zero emissions by 2045. The Environment (Wales) Act provides the statutory emissions reduction framework for Wales’ low carbon transition. It establishes a system of targets and carbon budgets to net zero by 2050, with interim emissions reduction targets for the years 2020, 2030 and 2040 and a system of carbon budgeting that together create an emissions reduction pathway to the 2050 target. The Northern Ireland Executive has not yet passed any legislation setting out its own targets, but bills are currently passing through the Northern Ireland Assembly. While climate change policy itself is devolved, areas such as energy are not devolved, and for those areas, devolved governments are reliant on UK Government decisions.

Climate change policy is broader than reducing or preventing the emission of greenhouse gases (mitigation). It is also important to plan and prepare for the expected impacts of climate change (adaptation). A November 2020 National Audit Office report, Achieving government’s long-term environmental goals, has highlighted the need for joint action across government on both mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

Relevant, accessible, and insightful statistics are essential to support delivery of the UK’s climate change goals – they are crucial for informing the design, monitoring and evaluation of policies on mitigating and adapting to climate change. The statistics also help the public understand the nature and impacts of climate change, which is pivotal in effecting the wider societal change needed to tackle the problem. Looking in detail across the UK climate change statistical landscape is thus timely and sheds light on the value of these important statistics.

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