Government facing legal action over failure to fight climate change

Lawyers say ministers have been in breach of legal requirements to come up with a plan to make major cuts to the UK’s fossil fuel emissions for years – and further delays in its publication could be the final straw

Ian Johnston
Environment Correspondent
Saturday 28 January 2017 23:37 GMT
The ongoing delay is potentially serious because it means industry and investors will have less time to plan for the changes that would be required
The ongoing delay is potentially serious because it means industry and investors will have less time to plan for the changes that would be required (Getty)

The Government is facing legal action over its failure to come up with a plan to dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels in order to meet the UK’s international commitments in the fight against climate change.

Britain has agreed to cut emissions by 57 per cent by 2032 but is currently nowhere near meeting that goal.

The latest expert report predicted the target would be missed by 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of all the greenhouse gases currently produced by industry.

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The Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan was supposed to have been ready at the end of last year but the publication date was first put off until February and then again to the end of March.

The Independent can now reveal the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which is responsible for climate change after Theresa May abolished the dedicated department, is no longer standing by this latest deadline.

Under the 2008 Climate Change Act, the Government has a legal duty to come up with ways to meet its carbon reduction targets.

Environmental legal activists at ClientEarth had already put Theresa May on notice that it was considering legal action over the Government’s lack of progress on the issue, telling the Financial Times it had been breaking the law for several years.

And climate lawyer Jonathan Church said if the March deadline was missed this could prompt them to go to court.

“We’ve made it clear that under our analysis, the UK Government is already in breach of the Climate Change Act because its plans don’t deliver the emissions reductions the Act demands,” he told The Independent.

“If that remains the case come April, after many months of delay, that may be the moment to bring a legal challenge.”

ClientEarth has already successfully sued the Government for failing to come up with a plan to cut air pollution to within legally allowed standards.

Barry Gardiner, shadow climate change minister, said he believed the Government was now breaking the law.

The 2008 Climate Change Act “demands” that the Government must produce an Emissions Reduction Plan “as soon as is reasonably practicable”, he said, adding: “They are clearly in breach of the statute.”

He criticised climate change minister Nick Hurd, who had assured him that the March deadline would be met.

Mr Gardiner confronted Mr Hurd about a potential delay to the plan in the House of Commons on 23 January when the Government’s Industrial Strategy report was published. It said the emissions plan would be published “in 2017”, rather than “early 2017” as previously stated.

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But Mr Gardiner said Mr Hurd had told him: “No, no Barry, it’s still our intention to publish by the end of March. That’s just loose wording on the part of the officials.”

“I said, ‘Can I quote you on that?’ and he said, ‘Oh yes,’” Mr Gardiner said.

“What it means is neither the officials nor the minister know when this is going to come out or how they are going to meet the targets.”

He said he believed Mr Hurd, known to be a strong supporter of action to address climate change, would “like to have it out as soon as possible, but his officials simply cannot get it together”.

“In order to do this properly, you need cooperation between Transport, Communities and Local Government, the Cabinet Office, Defra as well as BEIS… at least five departments,” Mr Gardiner said.

“Because the key areas we are failing on are not actually energy, power production and renewables. It’s actually energy efficiency and the transport sector. Housing and transport are key elements of this strategy.

“My view is nobody in those departments is prepared to play ball with them. Nick Hurd is the minister in charge of the brief. He should be damn well making sure that it happens – it’s his job to drive it.”

He said he did not want to call for Mr Hurd’s resignation “at this stage” because the Government had not actually said it would miss the March deadline.

And he added if Mr Hurd did quit it “would probably mean you ended up with somebody worse who didn’t even want to reach the March deadline”.

The ongoing delay is potentially serious because it means industry and investors will have less time to plan for the changes that would be required, increasing the cost of making them.

Environmentalists and the car industry, a key source of carbon emissions, found themselves united in calling for the Government to get a move on.

Tamzen Isacsson, of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said: “The Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan promises to build on its commitment to accelerating take-up of ultra-low emission vehicles, so we welcome its publication as soon as possible.

“Plug-in electric, hybrid and hydrogen cars will deliver even greater improvements in emissions, but this market is still small – meaningful growth will require continued support through infrastructure development, incentives and a tax regime that will stimulate consumer demand.”

And Gareth Redmond-King, of conservation charity WWF-UK, said: “We need a plan that gives certainty to the renewables industry, to house-builders, to electric car manufacturers – to all the companies that will invest in the technologies and infrastructure that will not only tackle climate change, but will bring jobs and growth the UK as a result.

“The longer the Government leaves to publish that plan, the harder it becomes to cut emissions in time; any slippage beyond expected publication in March should give us serious cause for concern.”

When The Independent asked a BEIS spokesperson to confirm the March deadline would still be met, she refused to answer and insisted a question be emailed so it could receive a formal response.

Asked if the Emissions Reduction Plan was still on course to be published by the end of March, BEIS said: “Our emissions reduction plan will set out how we will reduce emissions through the 2020s and send an important signal to the markets, businesses and investors.

“We are investing the time now to undertake critical preparatory work to ensure we get this right. This includes engaging across businesses, industry and other stakeholders on the shared challenge of moving to a low-carbon economy.”

It is understood the Government is working to get the report published “as soon as possible”.

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But Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and Environment, echoed remarks made by Mr Hurd at a BEIS committee hearing earlier this month that it was important to get the plan right, rather than rushing publication.

And he said one “major factor” was likely to be the amount of time civil servants are having to devote to the prospect of leaving the European Union.

“If it doesn’t come out in March, it will be unfortunate,” he said.

“But most important of all, it’s got to be credible.

“I suspect the delay is a combination of: it’s going to be a challenge to come up with the right policies and there’s a drag effect from having to worry about Brexit.”

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