Climate Action

These laws have formed a foundation to fight climate change

Lyndon Johnson signs the Clean Air Act in 1967, adding to a broad foundation for future climate laws.

Lyndon Johnson signs the Clean Air Act in 1967, adding to a broad foundation for future climate laws. Image: Mike Geissinger/Public Domain

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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The Net Zero Transition

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Decades of legislation and policymaking are proving helpful to confront the climate crisis.
  • Recent efforts include a mandate for new cars sold in Europe to be emissions-free by 2035.
  • More must be done to match climate laws with the climate reality.

Nearly four decades ago, a US senator proposed legislation to draw up a national strategy for studying and addressing climate change. It quickly went nowhere.

Congress was at that point more focused on things like tax reform and a surging crack cocaine epidemic. And the bill’s sponsor, Joe Biden, was on the verge of launching an ill-fated early presidential run.

But there were plenty of other climate laws yet to come.

Their steady construction around the world over the years has created the legal footing necessary to confront the threat of physical and financial destruction.

A database compiled by the Grantham Research Institute at LSE and the Sabin Center at Columbia Law School puts the cumulative number of global climate laws and policies at 3,145. It stretches back to Japan’s 1947 Disaster Relief Act, which is about as old as that country’s modern constitution and complements other climate-related measures.

The most recent entries include a UK plan to decarbonize and domesticate energy production, and Türkiye’s policy bid to ramp up the production and use of hydrogen.

New rules and regulations keep cropping up; EU member states just approved a plan requiring that all new cars sold there must be emissions-free by 2035.

Sometimes additional laws can help manage the unintended impacts of others; a measure eliminating carbon dioxide-emitting cars, for example, might spur yet another policy to avoid reliance on metals that are critical for electric cars but concentrated in countries deemed politically unstable.

The number of climate laws by country.
The number of climate laws by country. Image: World Economic Forum

The historic legislation and policies crucial for climate progress may make no explicit mention of “climate change,” “tipping points,” or other contemporary terms now taken for granted. But they did share a focus on curbing pollutants, fossil fuels, and the damage they can unleash.

The Clean Air Act passed in the US in 1963 was aimed at reducing the health impacts from power-plant emissions released in one state on people living in another; it would later become an important tool for fighting global warming.

A bit more than a decade after that, Norway passed a law in 1976 to prevent products from damaging health and “causing environmental disturbance.”

And a few years after that, Japan reacted to a global energy crisis by enacting a law limiting the use of fuel, heat, and electricity. The same crisis inspired France to start drawing most of its electricity from nuclear power, helping to make it the advanced economy with the lowest emissions per capita.

Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on climate

Climate policy is a boring necessity drawn up in backrooms, far from the front lines. It’s been nudged forward by decades of international efforts to spur discussion and pool global knowledge, setting crucial guideposts along the way for domestic lawmakers.

The panel convened by the UN for its most recent influential report on the changing climate, for example, included 743 experts from around the world in environmental physics, energy efficiency, and economics – people probably more comfortable with spreadsheets than balaclavas.

It’s reasonable to be skeptical about the ideological intentions of such globally-well-connected intelligentsia, as the historian Adam Tooze observed recently. But in fact, as he put it, these people tend to be both profoundly committed and broadminded.

As they answer questions about what it will take to put the planet on a better path with data, legislators follow their lead with bills, committees, and amendments.

Image: World Economic Forum

It’s clear that more must be done to match current laws with the climate reality. That recent UN panel report found that there’s very little remaining chance of limiting warming to the crucial threshold of 1.5°C, barring dramatic emissions reductions.

Global sea surface temperatures hit all-time highs this month, and unprecedented rates of sea level rise have been recorded in the US. India recently had its warmest February since 1901, and its heatwaves are becoming even more destructive (that country’s last entry in the global climate law database: a bill mandating the use of renewable energy and carbon-neutral technology).

Politicians drawing attention to climate realities are sometimes accused of hyperbole. In remarks made while signing the Air Quality Act in 1967, Lyndon Johnson, a US president with a legendary ability to stretch the truth, drew a vivid picture of life circa 1980 – when far more cars would be on the roads burning fuel.

“Either we stop poisoning our air,” he said, “or we become a nation in gas masks, groping our way through the dying cities and a wilderness of ghost towns that the people have evacuated.”

Sounds awful. And also eerily similar to images of the aftermath of wildfires that have recently scourged the western US, intensified by climate change. In this case, at least, Johnson seems to have been sticking close to the facts.

More reading on climate laws and climate reality

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • The biggest obstacle is “political, not technical.” The inadequacy of commitments to winding down the use of coal-fired power could directly expose about 800 million people to rising sea levels, according to this piece. (Inside Climate News)
  • The EU’s agreement on zero-emissions cars by 2035 followed lengthy debate, according to this piece; Italy wanted a biofuels exemption (not granted), Germany wanted a carveout for “e-fuels” using hydrogen (granted), and Poland voted against the measure over concerns about rising car prices. (Yale Environment 360)
  • Because it's not getting any cooler – the US needs to update policies on heat-warning systems now that climate change impacts are worsening, this piece argues. (STAT)
  • Under another new rule proposed in the EU, according to this piece, companies will have to back up their claims about climate-friendly products with independently-verified science. (GreenBiz).
  • What’s a “tipping cascade?” One example: melting Greenland ice pushes so much freshwater into the North Atlantic it impacts the ways ocean currents move water and heat globally. According to an expert interviewed in this piece, cutting emissions can help make these scenarios a lot less likely. (EOS)
  • The policies of a past military dictatorship still haunt Chile, where according to this report a climate crisis has been intensified by a subsidized timber industry and drought-primed forests. (Inside Climate News)
  • For those baseball fans fortunate enough to avoid other climate impacts first-hand, this study identifies at least one: over 500 major league home runs attributable to high temperatures resulting from climate change. (Science Daily)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Climate Change, the Net-Zero Transition and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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