The UK strategy for cutting greenhouse gas emissions could exceed targets set by parliament, government lawyers told the High Court today.
Ministers had been accused yesterday of failing to reveal a shortfall in the effect of their policies on legally-binding carbon reductions in the 2030s.
The details, in a government document, were disclosed for the first time during a legal challenge to the UK’s net zero strategy (NZS) by three campaign organisations.
Friends of the Earth, Client Earth and Good Law Project argued that the NZS, required to set policy to meet carbon budgets, was flawed and unlawful.
They said the government document showed that the NZS accounted for 95% of emissions cuts needed to meet the sixth carbon budget, covering 2033-2037. And the government intended to make up the shortfall with additional policies that were still to be developed, they said.
But this morning, government lawyers, defending the NZS, said emissions cuts could exceed what was set in the sixth carbon budget.
Richard Honey QC, for the business secretary, told the court:
“The 95% figure did not take account of proposals and polices in the NZS which were not quantified but which could deliver additional savings.
“There was therefore no shortfall. 95% was not based on the full list of proposals and policies.”
He said the sixth carbon budget could be overachieved by 1 mega tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent a year (1 Mt CO2e pa) from NZS policies and proposals.
He also said the 95% figure in the document was based on higher assumptions of global warming potential, a measure of the power of atmospheric heating. The higher assumption led to higher carbon emission estimates, Mr Honey said, effectively making it harder to achieve the carbon budgets.
But he said the COP26 climate conference and the UK later adopted a lower “without feedback” global warming potential assumption.
The court was told that the government now estimated that emissions cuts from quantified policies in the NZS, using the lower assumption, would over-achieve the targets in the fourth climate budget by 26 Mt CO2e pa, the fifth budget by 86 MtCO2e pa and the sixth budget by 3 MtCO2e pa.
Quantification can be “difficult and misleading”
The campaign organisations had argued that the NZS contained vague and unquantified policies without timescales and omitted vital information needed to hold the government to account.
They said the business secretary had unlawfully failed to comply with sections 13 and 14 of the Climate Change Act, which legislates on what should be included in the NZS.
The minister incorrectly decided that he didn’t have to quantify the impact of the policies to conclude they would enable emissions targets to be met, the organisations said.
They also said he failed to include in the NZS an explanation of why the polices would achieve sufficient emissions reductions.
Mr Honey responded that there was no duty under the Climate Change Act for the business secretary to quantify fully the expected emissions reductions. He said:
“Quantification of such proposals and policies will be difficult and may be impossible.”
Publication of quantitative data could be misunderstood and harm policy development, Mr Honey added.
The judge hearing the case, Mr Justice Holgate, suggested:
“Some quantification must be necessary.”
“It is a matter of degree”, Mr Honey told the court.
He said the NSZ did not require a guarantee that budgets would be met. He said:
“It is sufficient that the secretary of state reasonably considers that the proposals and policies will enable future carbon budgets to be met.”
But the campaign organisations argued today that indicative delivery pathways described in the NZS were not a replacement for individually quantified proposals and policies. The pathways were incomplete and a theoretical aspiration based on modelling, they said.
Jessica Simor QC, for Client Earth, told the court:
“At any moment in time, the secretary of state must have quantifiable polices and proposals that enable the budgets to be met. The government cannot count polices that are unquantifiable as counting towards meeting carbon budgets.”
Defending the process behind the NZS, Mr Honey said proposals and polices fed into the pathways and were assessed to be consistent with the emissions savings required.
“The pathways showed how the carbon budget could be met and how policy would take effect.”
Mr Honey also said there was no need to include in the NZS the thinking behind the minister’s decisions or information that would allow people to redo the predictive judgements.
“It is unrealistic to think that parliament would carry out detailed scrutiny. That is the role of the Climate Change Committee.”
But Ms Simor said the Climate Change Committee, the government’s climate advisor, had seen only the NZS. It did not have the information needed to check the secretary of state’s judgements, 10 months after publication, she said.
The government also dismissed the claim by Good Law Project and campaigner Joanna Wheatley that the NZS had contravened the human right to a family life. They had argued that the way the business secretary interpreted the Climate Change Act had exacerbated Ms Wheatley’s anxiety about climate change.
But Mr Honey said:
“There is no evidence that the impacts of climate change are severely and directly affecting Ms Wheatley’s home, family life or private life.”
The campaign organisations have asked the court to declare the NZS unlawful and order the government to comply with the Climate Change Act.
Mr Honey said if there had been a legal error, the court should not order a revision of the NZS. Rewriting it based on the lower global warming potential assumption and 100% quantification of proposals would not result in any further policies, he said.
Mr Justice Holgate reserved judgement. He gave no indication of when his ruling would be handed down.
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