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ClientEarth Communications

3rd May 2024

Climate accountability

We’ve won in court against the UK government for the second time

The High Court has again ruled in our favour that the UK government’s climate strategy is not fit-for-purpose, and therefore breaches the UK Climate Change Act. 

Back in July 2022, as the UK sweltered in record temperatures, the High Court ruled in our favour for the first time against the government’s inadequate net zero strategy, concluding that it breached the Climate Change Act, and needed to be strengthened.

A year on, the Government produced a revised climate plan that still fell far short of the credible plan required by the law. So in February 2024 we went back to court, alongside our partners Friends of the Earth and Good Law Project, and won for a second time.

What did the court say?

Following our hearing in 2022, the Government was ordered by the High Court to publish a revised Net Zero strategy. In March 2023 they did just that. But we still didn't think it met the minimum legal standards. The new plan relies on high-risk and unproven technologies to tackle climate change, as well as vague and uncertain proposals. This approach doesn't stand up to the basic requirements of the Climate Change Act, which is why we brought a judicial review of the plans in June 2023.

So, alongside our partners Friends of the Earth and Good Law Project, in February 2024 we went back to court against the government, and the court has now once again ruled in our favour.

“The courts have now told the UK government not once, but twice, that its climate strategy is not fit for purpose. This time the court made it emphatically clear: the government cannot just cross its fingers and hope for high-risk technologies and uncertain policies to plug the huge gaps in its plans.

“No more pie in the sky – this judgment means the government must now take real, credible action to address the climate crisis with a plan that can actually be trusted to deliver and with numbers that can be relied on.

“As its own expert advisors have repeatedly said, the government has a golden opportunity to reduce emissions with actions that will also create jobs, improve services and bring down household bills.

“Actions such as public transport investment and a home insulation roll-out will create new jobs, lower costs and provide energy security now and for generations to come – as well as putting us on track to meet our legal targets.” 

Sam Hunter Jones, ClientEarth lawyer 

What was our argument in the new legal action?

After the successful hearing in 2022, the High Court ruled that the government’s Net Zero Stategy was in breach of the Climate Change Act, and ordered the government to revise it. A new strategy – the ‘Carbon Budget Delivery Plan’ –  was delivered in March 2023.

However, we still thought the revised strategy was inadequate, and failed to meet core requirements of the Climate Change Act. We argued: 

We are pleased that ClientEarth, through taking action in this case and in our 2022 case, can help ensure that the UK Climate Change Act – one of the world’s first pieces of long-term domestic climate legislation – is being implemented by the government in a way that makes the actual achievement of its Net Zero target a realistic proposition.

Kyle Lischak, ClientEarth Head of UK 

What happens now?

The Secretary of State is expected to have to draw up a new climate strategy within 12 months. We'll be watching.

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What was our argument in the first court case?

In January 2022 we submitted a landmark climate case to the High Court. After it was granted permission to proceed in March 2022, 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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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 happened in the hearing of the first case?

An important revelation from the hearing was that the UK government had 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 was 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 first ruling say?

The High Court found that the net zero strategy, which set out plans to decarbonise the economy, didn’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 stated 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.

So what did the government have to do?

Once we had received a ruling in our favour, the UK government had eight months to update its climate strategy to include a quantified account of how its policies will actually achieve climate targets. These would have to be based on a realistic assessment of what it actually expects them to deliver. The updated strategy would 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 was a breakthrough moment in the fight against climate delay and inaction. It forced the government to put in place climate plans that will actually address the crisis. It was 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

In October 2022, the UK government announced that it would not be pursuing an appeal of the High Court’s ruling.

Why did we decide to take action in the first place?

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 at the time showed the UK’s projected emissions in 2033-2037 being more than double the levels the government is legally required to adhere to.

The government was 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 was 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 the plans to roll-out low carbon heating and home insulation were well below the levels advised by the CCC.

Because we succeeded in this case, the government was obliged 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.

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 actions intend to make that happen.

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