Updated: UK government’s net zero strategy unlawful, court rules

A landmark decision at the High Court has ruled that the government’s flagship plans to cut carbon emissions breach legal obligations.

In a judgement published today as temperature soared, Mr Justice Holgate found that the net zero strategy, which sets out plans to decarbonise the economy, did not meet requirements under the Climate Change Act.

He also ruled that parliament and the public had been kept in the dark about a shortfall in meeting a key target for cutting emissions.

The judge’s decision follows legal challenges brought by Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth, the Good Law Project and environmental campaigner, Jo Wheatley. Their cases were heard together at the Royal Courts of Justice in June 2022(see DrillOrDrop reports on the hearing Day 1 and Day 2).

Under the Climate Change Act, the government is required to produce detailed policies to show how the UK’s legally-binding carbon budgets will be met.

But Mr Justice Holgate ruled that the energy minister, Greg Hands, who signed off the net zero strategy, did not have legally-required information on how carbon budgets would be met. Despite this, Mr Hands approved the strategy.

The judge said:

“The briefing to the Minister did not enable him to appreciate the extent to which individual policies, which might be subject to significant uncertainty in terms of content, timing or effect, were nonetheless assumed to contribute to the 95% cumulative figure. This concern is all the more serious because the Minister was told that that the assessment by BEIS was based upon the assumption that the quantified policies would be ‘delivered in full’.”

He added that the information was crucial so that he could question whether the strategy he was being advised to adopt was “overly dependent on particular policies, or whether further work needed to be carried out to address uncertainty, or whether the overall figure of 95% was robust or too high”. He said:

“In my judgment, without information on the contributions by individual policies to the 95% assessment, the Minister could not rationally decide for himself how much weight to give to those matters and to the quantitative assessment in order to discharge his obligation under s.13(1) [of the Climate Change Act].”

The government has been ordered to update the net zero strategy to include a quantified account of how policies will achieve climate targets. The update must be presented to parliament before the end of March 2023.

The revised plan must also stand up to scrutiny from the government’s advisor, the Climate Change Committee (CCC). Last month, the CCC warned that that the current strategy would not deliver net zero emissions by 2050. There were credible plans for just two-fifths of the government’s required emissions reductions, the CCC said in a 600-page report.

The judge said:

“the court should give considerable weight to their [the CCC] advice in December 2020 on the setting of CB6 [sixth carbon budget] that the Government’s net zero plans should include a “quantified set of policy proposals” and their criticism in October 2021 of the NZS for failing to quantify the effect of each policy and proposal on emissions reductions.”

He refused a government application to appeal on the basis that there were no grounds for a real prospect of success.

Campaigners outside the Royal Courts of Justice, 8 June 2022. Photo: Friends of the Earth

Shortfall in emissions cuts

During the court case, it emerged that calculations by civil servants on the impact of policies in the net zero strategy did not add up to the emissions cuts needed in the sixth carbon budget. This is the volume of greenhouse gases that the UK can legally emit during 2033-37.

The 5% shortfall represented 75 million tonnes of CO2e. This is almost the total emissions from all car travel in the UK, Friends of the Earth has estimated.

The figures were not given to parliament or made available to the public.

Mr Justice Holgate stressed in his judgement the importance of government transparency and the essential role of parliamentary accountability in tackling climate change.

Friends of the Earth’s lawyer, Katie de Kauwe, said:

“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.

“More than a decade ago, Friends of the Earth spearheaded the grassroots campaign that led to this vital piece of legislation. Today, we have strengthened its enforcement, which is so crucial to our country’s ability to tackle the climate crisis.”

Sam Hunter Jones, senior lawyer at ClientEarth, described the decision as a “huge win for climate justice and accountability”. He said:

“It forces the Government to put in place climate plans that will actually address the crisis.

“The court has emphasised that the risks to delivery of the UK’s climate targets are “all- important” – the Government must now address those risks when it prepares a revised strategy that meets the requirements of the Climate Change Act.

“This is also an opportunity to move further and faster away from the expensive fossil fuels that are adding to the crippling cost of living crisis people are facing.”

Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said:

“The illegality of its flagship climate change strategy is a huge political embarrassment to the Government. The Net Zero target must be a road map to a sustainable future – not a lie we tell our children.  

“We are thrilled to have worked alongside our friends at ClientEarth and Friends of the Earth to deliver this landmark victory.”

Friends of the Earth also challenged the government on its heat and buildings strategy. Before the hearing, the government conceded it had acted unlawfully by not complying with the Equality Act. It did not consider the impact on people with protected characteristics, such as age, disability of colour.

  • DrillOrDrop is seeking a response from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Updated 19/7/22 to include quotes and a full copy of the High Court ruling

12 replies »

  1. An excellent decision by the court.
    This is about all our futures, the government cannot play fast and loose risking climate breakdown. The heatwave we are currently experiencing illustrates the change in our climate and the strain it places on every aspect of our lives, from food production, biodiversity and infrastructure. The U.K. is ill prepared for the change to our climate and the government has been warned about this time and time again. And if we do not act, the outlook is far worse.
    The government needs to ditch fracking, it is not compatible with climate change as the CCC stated recently and get on improving the insulation of buildings, updating key infrastructure and advancing green energy.
    The issue is not affording Net Zero, the issue is the economic and environmental destruction and devastation if we don’t.
    The Conservative candidates currently hoping to become the next PM are an utter disgrace framing Net Zero as though it is some kind of expensive add on, a nice to have, rather than the urgent necessity that it is.
    Hopefully this is a warning to Badenoch, Baker, Mackinlay and their like, their propaganda does not stand up to legal and scientific scrutiny.
    Time and opportunity have been squandered but time has run out and Net Zero is a priority that must be achieved.

  2. Lot’s of priorities to be achieved, KatT.

    And, the issue is affording Net Zero.

    May not be for a few but for many it really is. How about being honest about the costs, rather than leaking out the “small” add ons, like £160B (new nuclear), £54B (upgrade of the electricity distribution)-and quite a bit yet to come. If there is nothing to hide, why has it been hidden and why has there been no debate prior to the contract being made on behalf of the population?

    Importing from fracking over the horizon is not ditching. It is worse environmentally than doing it local to the area of consumption. Unreliable renewables do not have reliability improved by just having more of them. Your continuation along those lines is like a fantasy football manager wanting to have more goal keepers who can’t do the job, to support the one who can’t. A novel approach, but somewhat lacking for the real world-as £160B demonstrates.

    By the way, I have improved my home insulation over time. I do not mind paying taxes for the few who haven’t been able to afford to do so, but I have no wish to pay taxes for the many who have disposed of their income in other ways, whilst I did not, whilst I saved to insulate my property! There are a lot of priorities, KatT. I think you may find others have quite different priorities to you.

    • Congratulations on your home insulation Martin, a prudent & praiseworthy measure.
      Good luck with your own portfolio (as your personal finance & taxation is your stated priority)
      However, it is becoming clear (to most rational observers) that international action to minimise further global CO2 & CH4 emissions is now crucial to human survival.

    • A truly independent and well informed estimate of the costs of changing our energy systems from largely fossil fuel based to renewables based would be interesting, particularly if it was accompanied by an similar estimate of the costs of NOT doing so. This would, of course, be just in financial terms, as it appears to be the primary (or sole) focus of often shady, elderly, wealthy men, with direct financial interests in fossil fuel companies. Most people, without a solely financial imperitive, will also be concerned with the social and environmental costs of the same, as it will severely impact every aspect of their future lives and that of their children, grandchildren etc. This encompasses the vast majority of the human population of course and with an ever increasing groundswell. It will gradually persuade those in power, who largely want to maintain the status quo for reasons of power and money, that they will gradually lose both if they don’t act. Whether that happens quickly enough to prevent the costs of their inaction spiralling greatly higher, only time will tell. Highly likely though.

  3. Page 12 shows steady reliable performance of renewable energy since 2019. Some people just don’t understand how renewable energy works.

    Click to access Energy_Trends_June_2022.pdf

    UK shale gas has already proven to be the most unreliable source of energy there is. Plenty of renewable electricity flowing into pro frackers houses but no UK shale gas flowing into anti frackers houses. Waiting 12 years to still not boil your kettle with UK shale gas seems pretty unreliable to me.

  4. I think you might find, Martin, that lots (no apostrophe) of us share KAT’s priorities, particularly the priority of ensuring the continuing existence of humanity. As I tried, unsuccessfully of course, to explain to you after a different DorD article, chucking figures around, your truth, is meaningless if one’s values – humanity, biodiversity, for example, lie elsewhere. We must dispense with the belief that we are mere information processors, or computers, incapable of rational action, and hearken to those values and that rationality which enables us to make discriminations of value or order things according to their importance in a manner in which the burden does not fall disproportionately upon the vulnerable.
    Why have we not done what we know we should have done? Why do we not do what we know we should do? Despite the populist antics of those competing for the leadership of an increasingly alien party, there are signs that the penny is slowly dropping.
    This is just as well. A 1.5 degree temperature rise is the maximum we can allow ourselves and yet we are on target for 2.4 degrees.
    Six months ago, the chances of meeting a higher 2 degree limit
    was 1 in 20. If we manage a limit of 2 degrees then we will only have to manage a sea level rise of several metres, abandonment of the Persian gulf, the abandonment of many coastal cities,and the extinction of the vast biodiversity of coral reefs. These are the facts that humanity demands we take cognisance of and consider on the level of values. The costs of continuing to exploit fossil fuels are incalculably high: your reality fails to see the wood for the trees, continues to do the same whilst looking on and expecting a different result.

  5. I believe an enlightening consideration, alongside the relative COSTS of different forms of energy production (and the increased quantity of production, given the current lack of real impetus in energy efficiency of our building stock, present and future), is the RETURN on those different forms of energy production and whose pockets it returns to.
    In this particular case though, the government enacted legislation i.e. made the law, then the judiciary proved they are not complying with the law. Whether knowingly and deliberately, or through incompetence, it’s become a statement of fact. Now perm any one from four for business as usual.

  6. Ahh, the old “we” gambit. A little better than the “everyone” but still demonstrating the insecurity. For someone who tries to proclaim their accurate use of language, 1720, you do seem to misuse it on a pretty regular basis.

    Perhaps your humanity is different to mine 1720. Mine has been warned by the top expert they need to consider the laws of physics and arithmetic a lot more. Your response? Oh yes, you “interpreted” that if the Chief Scientific Advisor was still alive, he would have changed his mind! Now, that is pure Mystic Meg territory, to put it politely. Being more realistic, it is fabrication, and so explains your wish to disregard reality.

    Perhaps humanity are confused by those who know what we should do, coming up with the really intelligent suggestion (lol), “we must do something”. Then, when something is put on the table, protesting about that because it is not their something, eg. HS2, and reducing other transport emissions! Who should I believe, 1720? You, or Greta (she likes trains!)?

    Your last sentence demonstrates why I will continue to be skeptical about your “something”- if it ever appears. There is no issue with continuing to exploit fossil fuels if they were decarbonized. You have also eliminated that something, but it is something which is receiving a lot of attention and funding, so in that respect, something is being done. Will it become a much bigger something, growing from the acorn to make a wood? I suspect it could well do so, as the physics and the arithmetic appear to have a lot more potential than some suggestions.

    With regard to priorities, just a question for today. Is spending upon defence a larger priority than spending on Net Zero, for a country? After all, if a country is subjugated, then any consideration of Net Zero could also be subjugated. Does your humanity wish to reduce life expectancy by reducing spending on health care? I know mine doesn’t. Mine loves their grandchildren also, but would like to be alive to spend time with them, or to receive the fertility treatment, if required, to enable them to be produced.

    But, there is a well tested solution, 1720. Encourage local industry that produces a bigger tax take, and then all priorities can be met. After all, there is no windfall tax being supplied from over the horizon. It is pocketed, and then spent on some fairly dubious priorities, including lobbying for it to continue.

    • I see you’ve decided, Martin, not to engage with the current argument but to dig up old arguments or present distracting (and puzzling) new ones..Forgive me for ignoring what results.
      Consider: we humans can not, despite our ‘scientized’, numerical, quantitative modern world, express what is important to us in units, knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing. We use moral reasoning to form values which are the basis for the creation of a civilized society. Mathematics and physics are tools for the exploration and comprehension, to the extent possible, of our universe, they are not the masters of our values.
      Imperial ambition and an oppressive climate are results of ignoring these facts. “The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.” (Shakespeare)

  7. What I have decided, 1720, is to take what individuals post as being representative of what they want others to consider. Otherwise, why do they post?

    You seem to want to have individual comments considered in isolation. I can quite understand why, but that is just lazy and a typical cop out simply to protest without any coherence. I am not sure there are too many others who share that, yet you suggest you are supported. Maybe in certain circles, but equally without any coherence. Of course, I am considering that someone else has not posted previous comments, and they belong to one individual.

    I certainly use reasoning to form values. I do not see that from yourself, and could quote accordingly, but you would try and distract from that, as you have previously. Not puzzling at all, to me. Just standard activist activity.

    My values would suggest the lottery is a tool for my exploration and comprehension, and I could ignore the arithmetic. It would not change the probability of winning. The arithmetic decides that. That is the reality.

  8. It is good news day today:

    “EDF said a new two-reactor plant would generate 3.2 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, enough to provide 7% of the UK’s needs. It could power the equivalent of about six million homes and would generate electricity for 60 years, the firm said.”


    “But in the same announcement, Sunak pledged that as prime minister he would make it more difficult to build onshore windfarms in England.”

    Let’s hope Sunak wins…..

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