The government’s climate adviser has said planning policies must deliver carbon-reduction goals – but it declined to back a landmark legal challenge to how UK onshore oil production is decided.
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) said planning decisions should be tested against the country’s target to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Launching its annual progress report , the CCC said it wanted to see strong decarbonisation, with as little fossil fuel consumption as possible.
But it did not support the case, due at the Court of Appeal in November, that planning authorities should take account of carbon emissions from the use of oil produced onshore.
Environmental campaigner, Sarah Finch, will argue that Surrey County Council should have assessed these indirect emissions when it approved plans for long-term oil production at the Horse Hill site.
If she is successful, the case could have major implications for carbon-intensive industries.
Asked by DrillOrDrop about Ms Finch’s case, the CCC’s head of carbon budgets, David Joffe, said:
“You will need to consume some fossil fuels, hopefully a rapidly shrinking amount of fossil fuels over time. So, I am a bit uncomfortable with saying planning decisions should take those things into account if fundamentally it is going to stop us being able to operate our economy in the way we need to until we can get off fossil fuels completely.”
Dr Joffe said lower UK production would increase imports, with less control over emissions.
Ms Finch said there was no time to waste to make planning law compliant with net zero:
“In the UK, the mismatch between climate and planning policies means that the full climate impacts of onshore oil and gas planning applications are not being assessed in the planning process.
“We saw this at Horse Hill in Surrey, where in 2019 Surrey County Council approved 20 years of oil production. This oil could produce upwards of 10 million tonnes of greenhouse gases when it is burned – yet the Council argued it wasn’t required to take this into consideration in the environmental impact assessment. I am challenging that decision in the courts.”
Ms Finch added:
“We badly need clear updated energy policy and planning guidance that makes it explicit that councils have the responsibility and the authority to reject applications on climate grounds.
“And it’s not just me saying that. Surrey County Council’s own climate change strategy asks the government to make explicit that planning authorities have the right to reject planning applications where there are identifiable and material climate impacts.”
Net zero test
The CCC report called for a net zero test of all government policy to ensure it was compatible with UK climate targets.
The CCC’s chair, Lord Deben, said:
“We have really got to say that whatever we do, large or small, we have to test it against its contribution to net zero.”
The report called for reform of the planning system to deliver low-carbon and climate-resilient measures.
It said the current Planning Bill does not ensure that developments and infrastructure are compliant with Net Zero and appropriately resilient to climate change. It would be serious were this opportunity to be missed, the CCC said.
Lord Deben said:
“Unless net zero is as central to planning as the chancellor has made it to the decision-making of the Bank of England, then frankly we are not going to reach that end.”
Failure to deliver
The CCC criticised ministers for their failure to deliver on climate promises. 2020 had been “marred by uncertainty and delay to a host of new climate strategies”, it said.
“Those that have emerged have too often missed the mark. With every month of inaction, it is harder for the UK to get on track.”
The government was accused of “a high-stakes gamble” by focussing everything on a new net zero strategy in the autumn.
The report called for publication of the strategy, with clear policy plans, backed fully by the Treasury, before the COP26 climate summit, hosted by the UK in November.
It also had more than 200 recommendations for individual government departments.
It said reducing demand for fossil fuels and the emissions footprint of UK oil and gas production and processing were key to limiting the impact on global greenhouse gas emissions.
It recommended policies to reduce upstream emissions from oil and gas production by 68% by 2030, relative to 2018 levels. Flaring and venting should be permitted only for safety reasons from 2025.
Friends of the Earth’s policy head Mike Childs said:
“The committee’s criticisms are spot on. Without a detailed strategy for combatting the climate crisis, government promises to decarbonise the economy are simply more hot air.
“The Prime Minister must urgently set out his government’s blueprint for slashing emissions in key areas such as homes and transport. With no climate action plan and his government’s support for more roads, runways and an overseas gas mega project, Boris Johnson risks being a laughing stock at the UN climate summit in Glasgow later this year.
“The Chancellor’s role in delivering net zero is crucial – unfortunately this year’s Budget did little to demonstrate the Treasury’s enthusiasm for building back greener.
“It’s time to seize the new jobs and other opportunities that developing a green economy will bring or be left dealing with the fall-out of more floods, wildfires and droughts in a climate crisis spinning rapidly out of control.”