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ClientEarth Communications

19 July 2022

UK
Climate accountability

We’ve won our case against the UK Government’s inadequate net zero strategy

On 18 July 2022, as the UK sweltered in record temperatures, the High Court ruled in our favour against the Government’s inadequate net zero strategy, concluding that it breaches the Climate Change Act, and needs to be strengthened.

How did we do it?

In January this year, we submitted this landmark climate case to the High Court. After it was granted permission to proceed in March, we teamed up with Friends of the Earth and Good Law Project for a full hearing in the High Court where our claims were heard together. 

During the hearing, we argued that the Government had failed to show that its policies will reduce emissions sufficiently 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 also argued that the net zero strategy failed to include enough information about the policies and their expected effects to allow Parliament and the public to properly scrutinise its plans.

We said that these failings meant the UK Government had breached its legal duties under the 2008 Climate Change Act.

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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.

It was discovered during the court case  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 were 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

What did the ruling say?

The High Court found that the net zero strategy, which sets out plans to decarbonise the economy, doesn’t meet the Government’s obligations under the Climate Change Act to produce detailed climate policies, that show how the UK’s legally-binding carbon budgets will actually be met.  

It also found that parliament and the public were not told about a shortfall in meeting a key target to cut emissions. Behind-the-scenes calculations by civil servants to determine the impact of emissions cuts from policies in the government’s net zero strategy did not add up to the reductions necessary to meet the sixth carbon budget, which is the volume of greenhouse gases the UK can emit during the period 2033-37.

The ruling states that Greg Hands, the Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who was responsible for signing off the strategy, didn’t have the legally required information on how carbon budgets would be met when he did so.

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 does the Government have to do now?

Now that we have received a ruling in our favour, the UK Government has eight months to update its climate strategy to include a quantified account of how its policies will actually achieve climate targets. These will have to be based on a realistic assessment of what it actually expects them to deliver. The updated strategy will have to be presented to parliament for scrutiny by MPs.

The new plan should include sound policies that stand up to the scrutiny of the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

This decision is a breakthrough moment in the fight against climate delay and inaction. It forces the Government to put in place climate plans that will actually address the crisis. It’s 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

Sam Hunter-Jones, ClientEarth lawyer

Why did we decide to take action?

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 CCC.

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.

Because we have succeeded 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

What are carbon budgets?

The Climate Change Act of 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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