UK Climate Governance Timeline

To be completely clear – this is me writing in a personal capacity. My opinions (hopefully backed up with evidence, and flagged when controversial/later-turn-out-not-to-have-evidence-in-support), not me speaking on behalf of any organisation.

If I have got something factually wrong, or am missing important things, please let me know via the comments.

Also, I reserve the right to change my mind about this periodisation (periodisations generally are fraught, and can become cognitive cages and fetishes). But for now (September 2021), this

Pre 1988 – before Thatcher’s Damascene conversion

1988-1997– to Rio, to Rio again….

1997-2008 – muddling to the CCA

2008 to 2015 – From Copenhagen to “cut the green crap”

2016 to the present – whoops, apocalypse. But we’ll decarbonise!

Pre 1988 – before Thatcher’s Damascene conversion

1957- International Geophysical Year

1979 Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister

1985 Villach conference in Austria – climate issue begins to break through

1988-1997– to Rio, to Rio again….

“Prior to the election of New Labour in 1997, the previous Conservative administration began a series of policy initiatives that inadvertently contributed to major reductions in UK Greenhouse gas emissions…. During the mid-1980s, Thatcher also presided over a bitter dispute with the coal miners which culminated in the phasing out of much of Britain’s coal production, followed in 1990 by the Conservative privatisation of the UK electricity industry. These essentially political events precipitated a major shift in UK energy production from coal to low-price gas, allowing subsequent governments to claim that the UK was on course to meet its Kyoto target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 12.5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. The demise of heavy engineering sectors in the early 1990s added to the UK’s beneficial but serendipitous emissions reductions, while the introduction of an ‘escalator’ on road-fuel taxes in 1994 (later dropped) further added to the Tory contribution.” (Lorenzoni et al. 2008: 104)

1988 – Climate issue breaks through. Hansen’s testimony, Thatcher’s speech

1989 Thatcher’s speech to Royal Society


September – “This Common Inheritance” white paper

“The 1990 white paper which led to the 1994 Programme on Climate Change was notable for a move away from the existing regulation-based approach to environmental governance towards market-based instruments (Kearns 1991). New Labour’s CCP accelerated this change (Jordan et al. 2003).” (Lockwood 2021:  12)

The United Kingdom’s 1990 sustainable development strategy, This Common Inheritance (Department of the Environment 1990), included the first government commitment towards responding to climate change with a target of reducing carbon dioxide to 1990 levels by 2005 ( Bulkeley, 2015: 27)


1992 Rio Earth Summit. EU Carbon tax defeated


“Following the successful negotiation and signature of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the United Kingdom government published its first Climate Change Programme (Department of the Environment 1994) – a collection of measures to be undertaken in order to achieve the goal of emissions reductions by 2000 (Lovell et al. 2009). At the heart of the approach was a focus on improving domestic energy efficiency, through the introduction of a value-added tax on domestic fuel and establishing the Energy Savings Trust as an independent government body to provide advice and information to the public on how they might save energy at home. However, these measures were restricted in scope and ambition and with ‘emissions of greenhouse gases falling relative to
1990 levels, there was limited appetite for engaging in additional policies and measures’ (Lovell et al. 2009: 95).” (Bulkeley, 2015: 27-8).


COP1 at Berlin


1997 Blair Government elected

1997-2008 – muddling to the CCA

Very nice quote about the time leading up to the 2008 Climate Change Act…

“There were attempts at providing coordination in the 1990s via a cabinet committee and departmental environmental reporting (Oshitani 2013, p. 180), but without much effect (Boehmer-Christiansen 1995). Despite increased ambition under New Labour from 1997, the dispersed departmental approach remained in place. The 2000 CCP was housed in a newly formed department that bracketed the environment with food and rural affairs with little purchase over energy and transport. Strategy setting was also weak. While emissions reduction targets notionally provided strategic direction, both the 2000 CCP and a 2006 successor provided what Carter and Jacobs (2014, p. 125) call a ‘model of incrementalism’. This kind of approach allowed governments the flexibility they wanted to be able to manage costs, but it was recognised that it lacked long-term credibility and certainty.” (Lockwood 2021: 10)


“The coincidence of the international negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol and the election of the Labour government in 1997 gave the United Kingdom’s climate policy a degree of renewed impetus. Coming into office, Labour pledged to go beyond the United Kingdom’s Kyoto target of reducing emissions to 12.5 per cent below 1990 levels by the period 2008–2012, with its own target of a 20 per cent reduction by 2010 (Carter 2008; Hulme & Turnpenny 2004). (Bulkeley, 2015: 28)


Marshall Report commissioned, released (November) and the battle over CCL/ETS etc (see stuff in Bailey and Rupp 2006 abt this)


Climate Change Levy introduced in Budget

Business response to water it down (see Bailey and Rupp, 2006; Nye and Owens, 2008)

2000 Fuel protests

“This ground began to shift with the publication in 2000 of Energy in a Changing Climate, an influential report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which urged the United Kingdom to adopt”a long-term and radical approach to decarbonisation…. at the heart of Energy in a Changing Climate was the notion of undertaking a fundamental transformation of the United Kingdom’s energy system such that the use of fossil fuels was radically reduced to 60 per cent below 2000 levels by 2050.” (Bulkelely, 2015: 29)


March – US pulls out of Kyoto Protocol


April – UK ETS starts (see Roeser and Jackson, 2002)

2003 Invasion of Iraq

“Following the [2002] publication of The Energy Review, in 2003 the government released the first Energy White Paper since 1967, which placed climate change squarely at the heart of energy policy whilst also signalling the critical role of the energy system in achieving climate policy goals. The White Paper, Our Energy Future: Creating a Low Carbon Economy (DTI 2003), contained a commitment by the government to meet the RCEP’s goal of reducing the use of fossil fuels in the energy system by 60 per cent below 2000 levels by 2050 and focused on increasing renewable energy and improving energy efficiency.” (Bulkeley, 2015: 30)

or, a more bracing take

“As with so many rotten and depressing aspects of British life in 2021, a direct causal line can be traced back from the current situation to decisions taken under the Blair government. In 2003, under Patricia Hewett, the Department of Trade and Industry published a White Paper. The White Paper was notable for being the first energy policy to try and tackle climate change, and because it said nuclear power was uneconomic. Following intense lobbying from the nuclear industry, which just happened to coincide with plans to replace the UK’s nuclear armed submarines and build a new warhead, Downing Street stepped in and ordered a review that resurrected nuclear power in the UK. Before the review had even formally concluded, Blair was telling the CBI that nuclear power was “back on the agenda with a vengeance”. A High Court judge later ruled that review was unlawful and ‘seriously flawed’, but Blair got his way, and new nuclear power has been official government policy ever since.”


[Blair] gave a speech to business leaders in September 2004 urging them to take action on climate change and announcing that climate change would be high on the agenda at the July 2005G8 conference at Gleneagles. (Carter, 2014: 425) …. Blair’s 2004 speech to business leaders had prompted FoE to concentrate its campaigning efforts on climate change.22 With the launch of its ‘Big Ask’ campaign in May 2005 FoE alighted upon a simple policy discourse and associated demand: annual carbon targets and a Climate Change Bill. (Carter, 2014: 426)


Kyoto Protocol comes into force, following Russian ratification

EU Emissions Trading System starts

G8 at Gleneagles

“The formation of the Corporate Leaders Group (CLG) in 2005 showed the engagement of a wider range of leaders from some of the largest and most powerful corporations, including Shell, Tesco, Unilever, and Vodaphone.28 The CLG wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister in June 2006 calling for tougher carbon reduction targets to be set under the European Union (EU) Emissions Trading Scheme as a means of stimulating investment in low carbon technologies.” (Carter, 2014: 427)

“Arguably, the specific catalyst was David Cameron’s decision, after becoming party leader in December 2005, to make the environment the signature issue in his attempt to ‘modernize’ the Conservative Party. His ‘detoxification’ strategy emphasized issues, such as the environment, that Conservatives had previously not talked about and which might appeal to women, younger voters, and Liberal Democrats.” (Carter, 2014: 427)


“2006 heralded a further shift in the underpinnings of UK energy policy. Despite pre-election promises, the new UK Climate Change Programme announced that the nation would narrowly fail to achieve its interim target of a 20 per cent cut in C)2 emissions by 2010 and instead would achieve a cut of only 15-18 per cent.” (Lorenzoni et al. 2008: 109)

Climate Camp,

Release of Gore’s Inconvenient Truth

“The Energy Challenge (DTI 2006), opened up the possibility of new nuclear power generation whilst also continuing to support the need for Carbon Capture and Storage and the production of large-scale renewables (Lorenzoni et al. 2008).” (Bulkeley, 2015: 31)

Stern Review

David Miliband as Secretary of State for DEFRA


Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC

2007 Energy White Paper “Meeting the Energy Challenge” and the Draft Climate Bill

“More representative of the wider business community was the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the major UK employers’ organization, which also signaled a new approach by setting up a Climate Change taskforce and publishing a landmark report in 2007 supporting action on climate change. These developments coincided with the growing recognition that new infrastructure investment was needed in electricity generation, so energy companies realized that they could make money out of whatever technologies they were mandated to use, as long as the regulatory framework was clear and certain.” (Carter, 2014: 427)

“Cameron devoted less attention to the environment after Brown became Prime Minister in June 2007. The immediate catalyst was the need to shore up Conservative support to deter Brown from calling a snap election that autumn, which prompted a shift back to a familiar Conservative agenda of crime, traditional family values and immigration. Subsequently, Cameron seemed more reluctant to discuss the environment in his speeches and he omitted it from a May 2008 press conference spelling out the priorities for a future Conservative government. “(Carter and Clements, 2015: 208)

2008 to 2015 – From Copenhagen to “cut the green crap”


Global Financial Crisis

Climate Change Act


“In the wake of these significant developments, the government shifted its approach to climate change policy away from publishing a programme of loosely related activities to a more focused Low Carbon Transition Plan (HM Government 2009) intended to deliver the ‘18% emission reductions [below 2008 levels] needed between 2009 and 2020’ to meet the carbon budget of a reduction in over 30 per cent of emissions below 1990 levels through a range of measures, including ‘renewable energy, feed-in tariffs, zero carbon homes, carbon capture and storage … infrastructure planning and domestic energy efficiency, and supported by significant public investment’ (Carter 2014: 424). Rather than simply being a matter of enhancing the development of carbon markets, the Low Carbon Transition Plan recognises the critical roles of investment, infrastructure and innovation, as well as the roles of multiple actors, from the private sector to communities, in achieving these ambitions.” (Bulkelely, 2015: 32)

“The latest initiative is the around 800 pages of White Papers and consultation papers produced
in July 2009 (Department of Energy and Climate Change, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c, 2009d, 2009e, 2009f). They include a Renewables Strategy, setting out how the government intends to achieve the EU Renewables Directive target, and the Low Carbon Transition Plan, which repeats much of the former, and adds in transport. These voluminous documents provide an insight into how Britain’s climate change policy has been constructed. They propose an altogether implausible policy that is unlikely to achieve its objectives, and at very considerable cost—above and beyond that needed to make the required carbon emission reductions.” (Helm, 2010: 183)

Copenhagen COP, in December


Cameron/Clegg coalition government formed [for performance of Coalition govn, see Carter and Clements, 2015)


“The Carbon Plan: Delivering Our Low Carbon Future” (HM Government 2011)

Osborne’s speech at Conservative Party conference: “After declaring at the Conservative Party conference in October 2011 that ‘We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business’, Osborne had made clear that he was unconvinced by green growth arguments and in various interdepartmental disputes over climate policies, he lobbied hard against several key measures.” (Carter, 2014: 429) “[Osborne] He also succeeded in blocking the inclusion of a 2030 decarbonization target in the Energy Bill (2012), despite it being recommended by the independent Climate Change Committee and supported by the House of Commons select committee on Energy and Climate Change, MPs across all major parties and many business leaders.” (Carter, 2014: 430)

2011-12 as turning point for energy- see Kattirtzi et al 2021)


“Discontent towards Coalition climate policy among Conservative backbenchers coalesced in increasingly vitriolic opposition to onshore wind farms, which became a symbol of the perceived malign influence of the environmental lobby. This almost visceral hatred of wind turbines has been fanned enthusiastically by sections of the right-wing press. An early indication of potential trouble on the backbenches was a candidate survey before the 2010 general election, which found that 54 per cent of Conservative Party prospective parliamentary candidates (n =76) disagreed with the statement that ‘Expansion of onshore wind is essential if the UK is to deliver on its renewable energy targets’ (ComRes, 2010). By February 2012, concern was sufficiently high to prompt 101 Conservative MPs (several of whom were mainstream loyalists) to sign a letter to the Prime Minister urging him to remove or ‘dramatically cut’ the subsidies paid to wind farm developers (Hennessey, 2012). Although Cameron initially responded with a letter setting out his support for wind farms, such was the growing political pressure on him that in the summer 2012 ministerial reshuffle he appointed John Hayes as junior energy minister and another opponent of wind power, Owen Paterson, as Secretary of State at DEFRA.” (Carter and Clements, 2015: 216)


Osborne was clearly unconvinced by green growth arguments and, in various inter-departmental disputes, he lobbied hard against key measures. Thus he resisted pressure to allow the Green Investment Bank to borrow before 2015. He also blocked the inclusion of a 2030 decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill, despite it being recommended by the Climate Change Committee and supported by the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, MPs from all parties and many business leaders. This decision prompted an active campaign by a coalition of major ENGOs to secure an amendment to the Bill – proposed by Conservative Tim Yeo – that would insert a decarbonisation target. Eventually, this amendment was narrowly defeated in the Commons and the Lords in June 2013 (Harvey, 2013). (Carter and Clements, 2015: 215)

Harvey, F. (2013) Decarbonisation target narrowly defeated in commons energy bill vote. The Guardian 4 June.

From 2013 onwards, however, climate change policy moved into reverse, with the abrupt cutting of funding for the Green Deal, the privatisation and later de-greening of the Green Investment Bank, the so-called ‘dash for gas’ (including government support for fracking), incorporating the DECC into the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in 2016, and much else besides (see Table 1). Overall, however, it is not clear that this represents a new paradigm (Martin et al, 2015) ” (Somerville, 2020: 630) 

In 2013 a new allowance was announced which allows shale explorers to offset 75 per cent of their capital expenditure against corporate tax. (Craig,2020:11) 


“… by October 2014, the United Kingdom had signed up to the European Union’s target of reducing GHG emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 and to the voluntary aims of achieving 27 per cent of energy generated from renewables and a 27 per cent improvement in energy efficiency (Guardian 2014b)” (Bulkeley, 2015: 33).


General Election – end of the Coalition Government

In 2015 it was announced that the GIB would be privatised, on the basis that this would allow the bank to borrow (H.M. Government 2016) (Craig,2020:9-10) 

That the Treasury placed small priority on curbing carbon emissions is evident in the conduct of fiscal policy – shown, for example, in the counter-intuitive 2015 decision to subject renewable energy generators to Britain’s principal carbon tax. The timing of this decision, coming soon after the election, suggests that the demise of coalition politics has bolstered Treasury control over energy policy by removing the need for concessions to coalition partners in other departments

Paris COP

2016 to the present – whoops, apocalypse. But we’ll decarbonise!


“When DECC was merged into a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in 2016, environmentalists initially feared a downgrading of climate priorities. But in practice a growing belief in the potential of low-carbon opportunities produced an industrial strategy that was framed in terms of low-carbon growth (H.M. Government (HMG) 2017).” (Lockwood 2021:  15)

The language of industrial policy was re-introduced to British Politics by Theresa May in 2016, after a long hiatus in which it was widely seen as a relic of a bygone era. Its re-introduction was seen as a recognition that political action was required to tackle the various economic [page break] weaknesses and dysfunctions laid bare by the global financial crisis, as well as the disaffection with the status quo underlying the vote to leave the European Union. (Bailey, 2019: 9-10)

“Others broadly accept that climate change is happening, and that emissions must be reduced, but highlight the costs to business of doing so. For example, the Energy Intensive Users Group, which represents British industries that consume large amounts of energy—including steel, cement and chemicals— suggested in 2016 that the UK price floor on carbon should be abolished, and that subsidies should be given to ‘vulnerable, trade-exposed’ industries in order to offset the costs of carbon pricing (Energy Intensive Users Group 2016).” (Crawley et al 2020: xx)


In January 2017, the UK government published its plans for a new industrial strategy, in which the Prime Minister outlined “a new approach to government … stepping up to a new, active role that backs business and ensures more people in all corners of the country share in the benefits of its success” (HM Government, 2017a) (Busch et al 2018: 114) 

Under the 2008 Climate Change Act, the UK government committed to reducing national emissions by 80% by 2050 from 1990 levels, and published a ‘Clean Growth Strategy’ in October 2017, setting out broad plans to achieve an intermediate target of a 57% reduction by 2028–2032 (HM Government, 2017b). (Busch et al 2018: 114) 

“In November 2017, the much-anticipated industrial strategy white paper identified four ‘grand challenges’ towards which the government’s industrial policies should be geared – one of which was the need for “clean growth” (HM Government 2017). This turn towards ‘One Nation’ Conservative interventionism, however, proved to be shortlived. Progress on ‘cleaning’ Britain’s growth model was soon hindered by the Treasury and the political maelstrom created by Brexit. As Theresa May struggled to command the support of her party in the midst of the Brexit negotiations, reforms to existing government policy proved more limited than initially anticipated. The continued emphasis on the conventional priorities and instruments of industrial policy – capital spending on infrastructure and support for R&D – reflected the antipathy towards state-led macroeconomic change held by many senior figures in the Conservative Party.” (Bailey, 2019: 10)




10 Point plan…


Hydrogen strategy etec

Net Zero strategy

Basically open warfare between HMT and BEIS.

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