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england, wales and northern ireland: people change politics with the big ask

Back in 2005, few politicians paid any serious attention to the idea of a national law committing the UK to legally-binding reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions. Yet it seemed most unlikely that the UK would meet its reduction commitments without a framework within which real action could happen. Party politics also needed to be removed from the equation, to stop the government simply leaving an ever more difficult task to be dealt with by future administrations.

england, wales and northern ireland: people change politics with the big ask

what happened?

Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland (FoE EWNI) drafted and successfully campaigned for a new law on climate change. In 2008, they focused on making sure it was a really strong law, and were again successful, getting everything they asked for. The UK’s Climate Change Act commits British governments to:

  • 80% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050
  • five-year targets with annual reporting on emissions
  • including emissions from planes and ships in carbon-cutting budgets.


what changed?

The UK Climate Change Act became law in late 2008, and is a world first. It’s an enormous success for the thousands of citizens who took part in The Big Ask campaign in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – and hopefully it will be a significant step in the global effort to ensure a safer climate.


The campaign saw the biggest sustained public mobilization FoE EWNI has ever achieved. Well over 200,000 people got involved, writing and speaking to their elected representatives, and turning out for public meetings. MPs and commentators said that the weight of public response to this campaign was central to its success.


Government Minister Ed Miliband said:  “I pay tribute to the scientists who detected the problem, the campaigners who fought to bring it to public attention, the green movement that mobilised for change, and above all, the members of the public who wrote to us in record numbers asking for a Bill that met the scale of the challenge. We owe them a debt of gratitude for making it happen.”


lessons learned

The campaign benefited from the combination of a strong policy idea based on robust research, and some expert parliamentary work that established FoE EWNI as credible leaders on the issue. They focused their resources and were, in the words of one commentator “relentless” in pursuit of their key demands, not least through the tireless activity of more than 200 local groups.


FoE EWNI also formed a number of really powerful partnerships: on outreach, with high-profile figures such as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and creative agency CHI; on the research side, with The Cooperative Bank; and on activism with a range of other non-governmental groups through the Stop Climate Chaos coalition. They also made sure their communications spoke powerfully to the public, with a sense of hope and agency. The campaign has now spread across Europe, with Friends of the Earth groups in 17 countries currently campaigning for their own Big Asks.


See the full story of The Big Ask climate change campaign and what the law means.


what next?

The new law is a brilliant first step. Now FoE EWNI and others need to make sure it’s implemented. The campaign attracted new supporters and activists and FoE EWNI will be working with many of them to ensure local authorities in the UK get serious about cutting carbon, improving energy efficiency and supporting renewable energy. They will also be working within FoEI for positive outcomes from the Copenhagen climate talks in November 2009. They are also launching a new campaign to reduce the impacts of the livestock trade on global climate change and biodiversity.


Photo credit: Colin Hattersley/Friends of the Earth
Photo caption: Friends of the Earth members march along Edinburgh's Princes Street.

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