On Monday, July 18, the UK’s High Court ruled that the UK government’s net zero strategy (NZS) is in breach of law as it doesn’t explain exactly how its targets will be met. The ruling also found that the parliament and public were not informed about a shortfall in meeting a key target for cutting emissions, ordering the UK government to explain how exactly its policies will ensure its emissions targets are achieved.
The claimants were grassroots environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth, charity Client Earth, which facilitates environmental protection through legal means, and the Good Law Project, a not-for-profit campaign organisation that uses the law to protect public interests against abuses of power, working alongside environmental campaigner Jo Wheateley.
Their case against the defendant, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), was that the government’s flagship climate change strategy “illegally failed to include the policies it needed to deliver the promised emissions cuts,” as the Guardian put it.
Published in October, the UK’s plan to achieve net zero emissions included commitments to end the sales of new fossil fuel cars by 2030 and gas boilers by 2035 and to decarbonise the economy, among other things. According to the court’s ruling, however, the UK government failed to explain how policies like these would achieve emissions reduction targets, or specify the cuts in emissions to be achieved in each sector.
After the legal challenge from environmental groups at the Royal Courts of Justice, the High Court judgement, handed down by Justice Mr Holgate on Monday, was that the strategy lacks explanation or quantification of how the government’s plans would achieve the emissions target agreed under the Climate Change Act (CCA) in 2008.
The CCA’s targets for the UK government by 2050 read as follows: “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero,” “to make provision about adaptation to climate change,” and “to make provision about carbon emissions reduction targets.”
None of these targets were outlined in the NZS in a manner that made them achievable.
During the court sessions, it emerged that calculations by civil servants to quantify the impact of emissions cuts in the NZS did not add up to the reductions necessary to meet the sixth carbon budget (the volume of greenhouse gases the UK can emit in 2033-37).
The 5% shortfall over the sixth carbon budget is significant in climate terms, equalling around 75 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, which is almost equivalent to the total annual emissions from all car travel in the UK in 2019.
Justice Holgate’s eventual ruling did not find for the claimants on all grounds but did find that Greg Hands, the Secretary of State for BEIS, approved the net-zero strategy without having the legally required information on how carbon budgets would be met.
The court judgement ordered Hands to prepare a fresh report with quantifiable data to explain how the policies outlined in the NZS would contribute towards emissions reductions, based on a realistic assessment of what it expects them to deliver. Hands is required to present his report to parliament by April 2023, for scrutiny from MPS.
The BEIS department was also ordered to pay the claimants’ costs and Hands’ application for permission to appeal, which was denied because there was no “compelling enough reason to be heard by the Court of Appeal.”
Speaking of this, Justice Holgate stated:
“The NZS did not go below national and sector levels to look at the contributions to emissions reductions made by individual policies (or by interacting policies) where assessed as being quantifiable. In my judgement it ought to have done so in order to comply with the language and statutory purposes of s.14 of the CCA 2008.”
⚡️ BREAKING: We took the government to court and WON!
In a landmark victory, the High Court has ruled that the government’s Net Zero Strategy is unlawful.
Now the government must revise its strategy and lay out a credible plan for meeting emissions targets.
— Friends of the Earth (@friends_earth) July 18, 2022
The ruling takes on added significance this week
The High court judgement comes as the UK faced a nationwide heatwave with record-breaking temperatures, just as the Met office issued its first ever red alert for extreme heat. This moment has potentially brought home to many the stark reality of climate change, and of the government that does not seem to be doing enough.
The environmental campaigners have thus called the ruling a “breakthrough moment” in highlighting the governments’ inefficacy – as the climate crisis plays out before our eyes – in taking the problem seriously enough in terms of measures, with inadequate calculations, insufficient measures taken, and shortfalls hidden from parliamentary and public scrutiny.
Friends of the Earth lawyer Katie de Kauwe said on the matter:
“Taking strong action to cut carbon emissions is a win-win. Not only is it essential to prevent climate breakdown, but we can also tackle the cost of living crisis with cheap, renewable energy […] This landmark ruling is a huge victory for climate justice and government transparency. It shows that the Climate Change Act is a piece of legislation which has teeth, and can, if necessary, be enforced through our court system if the government does not comply with its legal duties.”
ClientEarth Lawyer Sam Hunter Jones also said:
“This decision is a breakthrough moment in the fight against climate delay and inaction. It forces the government to put in place climate plans that will actually address the crisis.”
In response, a BEIS spokesperson maintained that the net-zero strategy “remains government policy and has not been quashed.”
“The judge made no criticism about the substance of our plans which are well on track and, in fact, the claimants themselves described them as ‘laudable’ during the proceedings.” the spokesperson said.
This could reflect the continued difficulty of climate litigation. Even when shown in court to have behaved wrongly, government officials can still be seen to support their own policies and claim to see no fault in them.
This pattern is also concerning given the current leadership race in the UK, where several candidates have expressed net-zero scepticism. Just yesterday, the debate where COP President Alok Sharma was supposed to quiz candidates on their climate strategies if elected was cancelled hours before.
This lack of climate ambition is evident amongst the potential leaders, and more disturbing than ever.
Another successful climate litigation case
The ruling shows that the CCA can be used as a means to hold governments accountable for their climate legislation in the future, and ensure that they are sufficiently ambitious to achieve their targets and fulfil promises.
Examples of climate litigation cases being successful are on a global rise, as in research linking specific countries to the economic harm they caused in climate change impacts, and giving developing nations the figures needed for legal action.
This is a positive trend, as increased litigation enables countries’ climate laws to be scrutinised for their efficacy, and be accountable to change – or, as in these two examples above, makes countries clearly responsible for their climate damages. Either way, the ruling will undoubtedly encourage more and more concrete climate action.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Heathrow Airport, location of the hottest temperature ever recorded in the UK [19.07.2022]. Featured Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.