UK government in court over ‘unlawful’ and ‘irresponsible’ net zero climate strategy

Trio of environmental and legal campaign groups say public cannot hold ministers to account because climate plans omit crucial details

Saphora Smith
Climate Correspondent
Tuesday 07 June 2022 18:52 BST
The government is legally obliged to hit net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050
The government is legally obliged to hit net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (PA)

Climate campaigners are to begin a high court battle with the government over the UK’s net zero strategy, which they say is both “irresponsible” and “unlawful”.

Three environmental and legal groups claim the government’s plans are in breach of climate law as they omit vital details and “completely fail” to show how targets would be met.

Cases brought by Friends of the Earth, environmental law charity ClientEarth and legal campaign group the Good Law Project will be heard together at the High Court of Justice in London on Wednesday.

It is the first time the government has faced a legal challenge to its net zero strategy, which was formally published in October.

The strategy outlines how the country is supposed to slash its emissions by at least 100 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050, a target known as net zero.

It proposes measures including the construction of more nuclear power stations, restoring peat, encouraging walking and cycling, and committing millions of pounds to new hydrogen and industrial carbon capture schemes.

The government has insisted the strategy complies with its legal obligations and has been endorsed by the independent Climate Change Committee.

But the three campaign groups behind the challenge say the strategy does not detail emissions reductions each proposed policy is meant to achieve. They argue this means it is unclear if the initiatives can deliver on the targets the government is legally required to meet under the Climate Change Act.

This, they claim, means parliament and the public cannot hold the government to account over its strategy, and defeats the purpose of the Climate Change Act, which legally requires ministers to present a report that sets out how it will meet emission reduction targets, known as “carbon budgets”.

The three claimants filed their cases against the government separately but they will now be heard together at the high court.

Friends of the Earth lawyer Katie de Kauwe said: “The government’s net zero strategy is long on rhetoric and short on detail. It completely fails to show how the UK’s carbon budgets will be met. This is not just irresponsible; we believe it is unlawful too.

“We ultimately want to see an effective climate action plan that contributes to a sustainable future, and ensures that our legally binding, carbon-reduction targets under the Climate Change Act are met.”

The act is the legislation that sets out the UK’s approach to tackling climate change. Passed in 2008, it commits the government by law to hitting net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

It also requires the government to set out legally binding caps on the amount of greenhouse gas emitted in the UK over five years that act as stepping stones toward the 2050 target. These are known as “carbon budgets”.

The campaigners hope to force the government to implement a net zero strategy that contains a detailed plan on how the country will meet these carbon budgets and eventually net zero, as well as greater transparency of its strategy so the government can be held to account.

“I’m hoping that ... the review process will force the government to produce a much clearer, more decisive, net zero strategy that has targets that can be measured,” said Jo Wheatley, a 59-year-old grandmother from Essex who is a co-claimant with the Good Law Project on its case. “I’m really hoping for an outcome that means that the UK can be on track, we can be delivering on our commitments in terms of reducing our carbon emissions.”

Claimant Jo Wheatley said she hoped legal battle would steer the government’s climate policies ‘on track’
Claimant Jo Wheatley said she hoped legal battle would steer the government’s climate policies ‘on track’ (Jo Wheatley)

Since being told by the court that their cases would be heard together, the groups have consolidated the grounds for their challenge.

They say the first ground for their case is that the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, “misdirected” himself about his obligations under the Climate Change Act by deciding that:

  • He didn’t have to quantify the impact of the strategy’s policies on carbon emissions in order to decide that they would enable targets to be met. 
  • He didn’t need to be confident that the policies would enable targets to be met 
  • He was legally allowed to rely on policies with unquantified emissions reductions. 

They argue the second ground for their case is that Mr Kwarteng did not include the information legally required in the net zero strategy. They say the climate act requires the government to produce a report for parliament setting out its policies to meet the reduction targets. They will argue that Mr Kwarteng failed to do this because he did not include:

  • An explanation of why he thought the policies would enable targets to be met. 
  • An estimate of what emission cuts the policies would deliver 
  • The timescale over which the policies would deliver these cuts. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said they could not comment on ongoing legal proceedings, but that the government maintained that its net zero strategy complies with its legal obligations and builds on the UK’s “proven track record” of decarbonising faster than any other G7 country. they said.

“It sets out specific and detailed measures we will take on our path to eliminate the UK’s contribution to climate change, helping businesses and consumers move to clean, affordable and more secure home-grown power, supporting up to 480,000 well-paid green jobs, and leveraging up to £100bn of private investment by 2030 – all while reducing Britain’s exposure to volatile gas markets,” they added.

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