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.
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