It’s been a long 23 years since the Kyoto Protocol called on industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse emissions. Since then, countries the world over have been formulating their own climate laws, yet emissions have continued their relentless rise. The UN estimates that by 2030 we will be producing 56 gigatons of CO2e annually—more than twice as much as the level required to keep within the Paris Agreement global warming limit of 1.5 Celsius by 2100.
So it’s fair to ask: are climate laws really working?
That’s one of the questions tackled in a new study from researchers in the U.K. who wanted to get a clearer picture of what climate laws achieve. Their findings offer vital insights into the role of government and lawmaking in the global effort to counter climate change.
For a paper published in Nature Climate Change, a team at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics London School of Economics and Political Science put together a database of all climate change legislation passed between 1999 and 2016. With those data assembled, researchers Shaikh Eskander and Sam Fankhauser were able to consider what impact such laws have had. And if no climate laws had been passed in that time, how much worse would the situation be now?
“Firstly, there’s a lot more climate legislation out there than people think,” Fankhauser says. “In fact, there’s not a single country that doesn’t have at least one relevant piece of policy, so literally everybody is doing stuff.”
“Our question was: what have 20 years of sweat and effort and lobbying given us?”
Fankhauser notes that most climate legislation is rather new, with the vast majority of laws having been passed since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which committed industrialized countries to reducing their emissions over a series of five-year periods.
The team found that countries each have an average of nine climate laws, but some have far more: Brazil has 28, while Spain has instituted a remarkable 38 pieces of climate legislation or policy.
These laws span everything from large, strategic acts covering national emissions targets, such as the U.K.’s 2008 Climate Change Act, to more specific pieces of legislation such as the European Union’s rules on emissions from light commercial vehicles.
Some climate-related laws are considerably older: in the U.S., the Clean Air Act of 1963 was passed to control air pollution, but in 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide was a pollutant, enabling the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate CO2 emissions, effectively converting the law into a tool of climate action.
For the purposes of the new study, however, Fankhauser and Eskander focused on the period 1999 to 2016, a 17-year span for which relatively complete data are available, to determine what impact legislation has had on emissions. “We know what emissions were in 1999; we know what they were in 2016,” Fankhauser says. “We could then fill in the bits in the middle and calculate how much emissions would have gone up without any laws, and figure out how much of that increase the laws actually avoided.”
The results of the study were instructive. Fankhauser and Eskander discovered that, over 17 years, climate legislation has saved a total of 38 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s one global year, one world’s worth of emissions, saved by 17 years of climate legislation. Expressed another way, there has been a legislation-induced cut in emissions of about 15%. And results are improving as time goes by.
“In the year 2016, all the policymaking worldwide saved 5.8 gigatons of emissions, which is just a bit more than the U.S. emits in a single year,” Fankhauser says.
To put that figure into perspective, the drop in emissions due to the coronavirus pandemic this year has been assessed at 1.5 to 2 gigatons, suggesting climate laws are producing up to three times the impact of Covid-19, annually.
Is that good? Well, yes and no.
“On the one hand, emissions are still going up and it feels a bit depressing,” he admits. “But we can look at these results and say look: we have achieved something.”
Fankhauser refers to this as a “glass quarter-full situation.”
Breaking down the global picture, the researchers found that the impact of climate legislation could be measured on a country-by-country basis: for each climate law introduced, annual carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 0.78% per unit of gross domestic product nationally within the first three years. Beyond three years, CO2 emissions continued to drop by 1.79% per unit of GDP annually.
Another highlight is that, globally, climate legislation is not considered a politically partisan issue.
“In the U.S. there’s a perception that climate change is a left-wing concern; it’s very partisan,” Fankhauser says. “But if you look globally, it’s not. Climate laws by right-wing governments and left-wing governments are in proportion to the number of years they’ve been in office. So if a right-wing government is in office for half that time, they’re responsible for half of the climate laws.”
So what do good climate laws look like?
Fankhauser says specificity is important, pointing to recent laws passed in New Zealand and Sweden, as well as the earlier U.K. Climate Change Act. “They’re good because they have an explicit target; they’ve put into law what the emissions objective is. In these cases they say they want to achieve net zero by the middle of the century—so that becomes a statutory obligation.”
In many cases, such laws also put in place independent advisory bodies, such as the U.K. Committee on Climate Change, which is not attached to a political party. “These groups are technocrats, they’re not politicized, they can think long-term,” Fankhauser says. “They can advise on policies that can help you achieve the goals of the framework.”
Another important finding of the research shows that countries are less likely to pass climate legislation during economic downturns—a conclusion that should be of concern to countries attempting a “green recovery” from the severe damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“If you split the period we looked at into good economic times and bad economic times, you’ll see that there are noticeably fewer climate laws during the bad times,” Fankhauser says. “So there’s a worry now with Covid, if past behaviour persists, there will be a lot less climate legislation at a time where we need more of it.”
None of this is to say, however, that more laws equal fewer emissions. Fankhauser emphasizes that the quality of a law and subsequent implementation of it is the key. “To have twice the impact you don’t need twice the number of laws,” he says, “you need the same amount of laws, but twice as strong.”
The takeaway, then, is that climate laws do work, but in order to work better, they need to be done right.
“Yes, emissions have been going up, and we’re frustrated about that, but to use a Covid phrase you can say we have ‘bent the curve’,” Fankhauser says. “We just haven’t bent it enough.”