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ClientEarth Communications

10 June 2022

Climate accountability

Here’s what happened in our hearing challenging the UK government’s net zero strategy

Along with Friends of the Earth and Good Law Project, we went to the High Court for the hearing in our case taking the UK government to court over its inadequate net zero strategy. We argued that the government has failed to set out sufficient policies to tackle climate change and meet its legally binding carbon budgets.

What are our arguments in the case?

We argued that the UK government is not taking action at the pace needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Its current policies will not reduce emissions enough to meet its legally binding carbon budgets – targets which limit the total amount of greenhouse gases that the UK can emit over five year periods on the road to net zero.

We believe these failings mean the UK government has breached its legal duties under the 2008 Climate Change Act. What’s more, its approach risks the UK having to introduce more drastic measures in future and pushes the burden onto future generations.

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When did the hearing happen?

We, along with Friends of the Earth and Good Law Project, filed separate claims early this year, arguing that the government has breached its legal obligations under the Climate Change Act to demonstrate its climate policies will reduce emissions enough to meet the legally binding carbon budgets.

It was confirmed on 1st March 2022 that the cases had been granted permission to proceed to a full hearing in the High Court, where the claims were to be heard together.

The hearing took place on 8-9th June 2022.

What happened in the hearing?

An important revelation from the hearing was that the UK government has excluded significant detail from the net zero strategy that would allow Parliament and the public to properly assess the plans.

There was mention during the hearing of an assessment that the government’s plans only added up to 95% of the reductions needed to meet the sixth carbon budget, but this information was not included in the net zero strategy. And, critically, the reliability of this figure as a realistic estimate remains in doubt.

We’re surprised with the extent of critical information revealed in court, when it should have been available to the public from the outset. The fact that it has only seen the light of day because of our lawsuit reveals a concerning lack of transparency.

Sophie Marjanac, ClientEarth lawyer

ClientEarth lawyers Sam Hunter-Jones and Sophie Marjanac outside the High Court on the first day of the hearing
ClientEarth lawyers Sam Hunter-Jones and Sophie Marjanac outside the High Court on the first day of the hearing
What do we want to happen now?

On releasing the net zero strategy in October 2021, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the government had centred its plans on the principle of “leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation” and releasing them of the financial burden of adapting to a warming planet.

However, the government's latest published forecasts show the UK’s projected emissions in 2033-2037 being more than double the levels the government is legally required to adhere to.

The government is also relying heavily on unproven technologies, whilst overlooking viable current solutions that would have immediate impact, including solutions recommended by the its own advisors, the Climate Change Committee.

In addition to this, the government’s failure to deliver real climate action is resulting in higher bills for people. Soaring energy bills for many UK households is, in part, because of the over-reliance on fossil fuels for heating and poor levels of insulation across the country. Yet new plans to roll-out low carbon heating and home insulation are well below the levels advised by the CCC.

If we succeed in this case, the government will have to strengthen its net zero strategy, and actually show how its plans will deliver the emissions cuts it is legally bound to achieve, cuts that are critical to keeping a just and liveable world within reach.

It’s not enough for the UK government simply to have a net zero strategy, it needs to include real-world policies that ensure it succeeds. Anything less is a breach of its legal duties and amounts to greenwashing and climate delay.

Sam Hunter-Jones, ClientEarth lawyer

When can we expect the court's decision?

With the hearing concluded, the judge will now assess the arguments. A decision is expected in the coming months.

What are carbon budgets?

The Climate Change Act 2008 legally binds the government to carbon budgets that set limits on the UK's greenhouse gas emissions during five-year periods. They include a target to be over three quarters of the way to net zero in the next 13 years. ‘Net zero’ means that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK is equal to or lower than the amount of greenhouse gases removed from the atmosphere in the UK. The UK has also committed internationally to reduce its emissions by at least 68% by 2030 from 1990 levels, as part of its ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ (NDC) under the Paris Agreement.

Missing these targets would have severe consequences for the public’s future health and prosperity. To avoid this risk, the government has to show that its policies are sufficient to meet them. Our legal action intends to make that happen.

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